With the Tour de France in full swing and 2017 marking the 200th anniversary of the mighty bicycle, Rough Guides’ Greg Dickinson embarked on his own two-wheeled adventure through the country – and he discovered some things about the power of pedalling along the way.
I click down through the gears and stand up. To my left a half-man, half-bicycle overtakes me with his right arm raised and fingers splayed. The soft whistling noise his bike makes sounds expensive.
Then, a glitch in the matrix and an identical cyclist follows, wearing the same red and white lycra outfit. Arm raised, fingers splayed. Within seconds a peloton of a dozen cyclists has left me in its slipstream, each “bonjour” loading another brick into my already overloaded panniers.
I try to go down one more gear but can’t. I’m at rock bottom, on a stretch that my France en Velo guidebook promised would be the easiest of the entire Channel to the Mediterranean cycle. In eight days and five hundred miles’ time, my calves and knees will have broken and repaired, and the Massif Central will feel much easier than this.
But right now I can’t see over this hill. I dig my hand into my saddle bag for an astronaut-style energy gel sachet and rip it open with my front teeth.
Once I’ve sucked out the gloop, I chew the plastic for any sugary remnants. This, I think, is not fun. At least, not “type one” fun.
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I think back to a conversation I had with a mountain guide named Tim Hamlet, while hiking in Scotland one blizzardous March afternoon. There are three types of fun, he told me.
Type one fun is immediately enjoyable in the present moment: eating an ice cream, laughing at a great joke, having sex (probably not all at the same time). Type two fun is an endurance but feels worthwhile in hindsight – sitting with a beer in the evening with wind-bruised cheeks, for example. Type three fun is painful, soul-destroying and never feels worth it.
My neck cranes and legs continue to spin. Eyes fixed downwards, I dodge a thin black worm on the road. I’ve passed hundreds of these already, crawling along the hot mid-afternoon tarmac at a speed so slow that I can barely register any movement. Hour hands of the road.
As I travel further south from the English Channel I will find companionship in wildlife. Geckos will scuttle into cracks in the stone walls of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.
Griffon vultures with wingspans pushing three metres will circle high above newborn goats in the Gorges du Verdon. Countless dogs will chase me from the safety of their front gardens.
I find it hard to know how much time has passed on this hill climb. It feels like forty minutes but could be a fraction of that. My perception of time will warp in unexpected ways over the days and weeks to follow. I will recall lost memories and conversations, locked-away by the shackles of normal London life.
On a long, empty road in Provence – cloaked in a fog of lavender – I’ll wake up after an hour or more of cycling void of any conscious thought. I’ll later Google this and discover it’s a common phenomenon among cycle tourers called “bicycle meditation”. It’ll be hard to describe this to people back at home without sounding pretentious.
I reach the top of this unremarkable hill and I sit on my saddle and roll; my toes are numb from the strain. The terrain looks flat up ahead, but I tell myself there will be a downhill eventually. There has to be.
In two weeks’ time I will end up on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, where I will dip my toes in the cold sea and they’ll become numb again. Between here and there I will feel every contour, and glide down some of the best downhills in Europe.
One of these will be on a car-advert road that hugs the craggy wall of the Gorge de la Nesque, famous for its bright turquoise waters.
I will roll for twelve miles without pressing my pedals, and as I round a corner towards the bottom I will see a slow, heavily laden bicycle up ahead.
As I pass I will say “bonjour” and the woman will hear that I’m English too, so we will pull over and chat.
She will be the first and only person I meet on the entire trip who is doing the same route. A grandmother, on a schedule allowing twice as much time as mine, she’ll joke that she’s got so lonely that she’s started talking to the cows. Pages of her France en Velo guidebook will have been neatly removed and placed in a waterproof case on her handlebars, upright like a music manuscript, so she can read as she rides.
When we push away from the layby we’ll cycle alongside each other for a minute or two, forming a peloton of our own. Our bicycles won’t whistle expensively; they’ll create a drumming band of rattling chains and squealing brakes. And I will know that crossing a country on a bicycle clicks through the gears of fun like nothing else.
Header image: Greg Dickson. Body images top to bottom (left to right): Greg Dickinson; Greg Dickinson; Pixabay/CC0; Shutterstock; Greg Dickinson; Greg Dickinson.