Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part 5

We had a couple of refreshing cold drinks in the big square in Châlons-en-Champagne, grabbed something to eat, wandered back to the hotel, without the need for the detailed map, and slept the sleep of Kings. After each eating our body-weight in breakfast the next morning, we started pedaling off in the general direction of Crépy-en-Valois, which would allow us to drop down into Paris the next day.

On paper, this was a pretty straightforward East to West jaunt of about 90 miles, and luckily, Mrs Google Maps agreed. We had a dream of a start, beautiful weather, light tailwind and a great route next to a canal, weaving in and out of Sunday cyclists. Naturally enough, Mrs Google Maps only really allowed us to enjoy this for a couple of miles, before insisting that we cut across the map without actually using a road. Perhaps knowing that she was on her last chance, Mrs GM played an absolute blinder, luring us along a perfectly reasonable track until it was too late to turn back, then shoving us up a one in four hill made entirely of flints the size of your fist.

‘What better place for our first puncture’, I thought to myself, just after CB#2 announced that he’d punctured, and just before Bean told us that we had another 3km of this before we were likely to see any tarmac again.

CB#2 has many of the physical features of the Incredible Hulk, and pretty much the same sense of social grace. One of the reasons he’s such good value on these trips is because he can fix most things without the need for any tools. His fist operates as a reasonable lump hammer, and he can tighten most nuts without a spanner, not to mention whip off a tyre and tube without anything as fiddly as a lever. So at least his tyre was fixed fairly quickly. I was expecting a bit more rage when his rear rack snapped off after some more stupid off road riding, but he was quite relaxed, almost philosophical. Strapping up the remaining rack (to take home for repairs or parts, apparently), he decanted some of his luggage into our panniers, leaving him with a fairly heavy bag and no form of support. CB#1 told me that his money was on CB#2 strapping it to his back, and I half expected to see him  gripping it between his teeth, but he took the option of strapping it on top of his handlebar bag, making his bike completely unstable. It didn’t seem to stop him descending at a ridiculous pace, and his bodged luggage arrangement lasted all the way to Paris, so we survived. Which is more than could be said for his luggage rack, which he removed a little while along the route because it was ‘beginning to annoy’ him. To be fair, if I thought I was beginning to annoy CB#2, then I’d probably hide in a ditch in France until he’d gone away as well.

The jettisoning of CB#2’s rack took place just after we’d got to the bottom of the unmade road. Speaking politely, the way up had been what the mountain bikers would call a ‘technical ascent’ which means that you’re lucky if you don’t fall off, and it was followed by a technical descent, which meant that you’re both lucky and surprised if you don’t fall off. When we finally hit some tarmac a bit further down the route, it was like cycling into a mirage, and we vowed, not for the first or last time on this trip, to never be dragged away from the road again.

A few uneventful, if murderously hot miles later, we rolled into Crepy-en-Valois, a town almost famous for its extensive array of industrial zones, which unfortunately was where I’d booked our hotel for the night. There being very little either moving or shaking on an industrial estate of a Sunday evening, we ventured into town, ending up at le bar de l’Europe, where I was despatched, as head of communications, to order four beers. This I duly did, opting for the ‘standard’ option. Three beers later, we had not only established that Troll ‘standard’ lager is a thirst quenching 7%, but we’d also established a generous entente cordiale with our fellow drinkers, most notably an Algerian man called Muss, who told us that the new French president was a moron, and that Trump was a puppet to money and oil. Or at least, that’s what I think he was saying, we were both beginning to slur a bit. We both made valiant efforts to involve the non-English and non French speaking parts of the bar together, and managed to find a game which I’d recommend to anyone in a similar predicament. Basically, all you have to do, is remember the French (or English) that you were taught when you were at school, and try to have a conversation in both languages. It doesn’t need to make sense, and works better when you’ve had a couple of refreshing Trolls and work really hard on your accent. The sort of snippet you might have heard as you were walking past the bar de l’Europe might have been:

Drunk French Person: “The sky is blue”

Drunk English Person ‘Ici le Professeur”

DFP: “I have forgotten my umbrella”

DEP “Jean-Paul lance le ballon”

Then Muss bought us all another beer, and things went a little downhill. I have vague memories of steering my bike at a reasonable pace down a one way street, eating pizza and then following a mystery route back to the industrial estate, but it’s all a bit cloudy.

The next morning, we had the sort of breakfast that you’d expect from a dodgy hotel in the middle of an industrial estate on a Monday morning, and got away as soon as we could. At a relatively sober part of the evening before, Muss had insisted that we find the Canal d’Orque and go along that into Paris, and we’d agreed to do just that. And, given that a promise made is a promise kept, we tried our best to find the canal, and to our surprise, Mrs GM actually helped us to do so without dragging us across seven shades of off-road hell.

All of which was pretty good, although by the time we got to Paris Gare de Nord we’d had the sort of city riding experience that we all hate, so it was a relief to get to the station without being knocked about by cars, vans, trucks or pedestrians. Got the bikes on the train, got back to London, and back home in time for all the family to coo over my injuries in a curious style. My youngest son took a number of detailed photographs, and I asked him why – he said that he just needed to show some people. Mrs E made a trip to the 24 hour chemist, and stocked up on dressings for the week, thereby showing a care for her husband that he didn’t really deserve, given that he’d selfishly buzzed off without her for for five days.

I’m writing this last part about 3 weeks after we actually got back, and we’re a week into the Tour de France, where they have faster crashes than ours on a daily basis, and often just get up, change their bike and get treated by the team car while they’re riding back to the peleton…..

t.co/utVt8L03Dd

Which is a bit frustrating, as one of the injuries that I got, on my hip, is still steadfastly refusing to heal. Unfortunately, given its position, the only way I can let it get any air to dry out is by walking around the house in an outfit not a million miles from a Borat mankini. So if you’re planning to pop round any time in the next few days, please make sure you phone first.

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Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part four

Châlons-en-Champagne is a beautiful medieval city, it’s the capital of the Marne region, despite being tiny compared to Reims, which is in the same department. It has all the hallmarks of being very French and very medieval, a beautiful central square, lots of timber framed buildings, and peculiar stone bridges over a winding river. But if you start from the centre of the city, and head out towards your hotel for the night, as we did, the medieval-ness very swiftly gives way to more modern buildings, so that by the time you’re a couple of kilometres away you could be in pretty much any modern European town.

Stay at the Hotel Bristol, though, and you’ll find yourself transported to a spotless time capsule of around 1972, and you’ll be greeted with an enthusiasm and attention to detail that’s hard for me to do justice to here. The landlady, who spoke fluent French, German and English, soon ascertained that we were English, so proceeded to give us a guided tour in French, with a few words of German for Bean, who had let slip that he’d learnt a bit of German at school. The level of detail presented was astonishing, and it took about 40 minutes to check in, which must have been a bit frustrating for CB#1 and CB#2, who were minding the bikes outside. I made the mistake of asking the best way to get into town, and was presented with two bus timetables, withe the best routes highlighted. and clear instruction on how to walk to the bus stop just outside the hotel. Then a card for a taxi company and clear directions to whatever restaurant that we were to be to call (under no circumstances should we attempt this call ourselves), and details of the hotel (and security access key) neatly stapled to the back. This in itself took about 10 minutes to explain, plus another 5 for the translation into German for Bean’s ‘benefit’. After checking in, we were shepherded into our rooms where we were given the low down on how to use the shower, the blinds, and (I’m not making this up). the sheets and covers. Bean and I were sharing, so received instructions in French/German, CB#1 and CN#2 had the same experience in their native tongue, which left them equally perplexed.

There were, however, two simply fabulous results for us. Mme Bristol followed up her explanations by delivering all manner of baked goods into our rooms, apparently oblivious to the fact that Bean and I were just wearing bib shorts in order to check each other’s injuries (probably not our best look, I really hope she remembered we were cyclists). After getting showered, I braved a reunion, to ask if there was a pharmacy anywhere nearby. Delightfully, I was told that there was one about 400m away. Although it was actually on the same road as the hotel, a map was drawn, showing local landmarks and several places of interest en route.

With these clear instructions to hand, I limped up the hill to the pharmacy, rehearsing the phrases I’d try to learn from Google Translate. These were, essentially, ‘I am concerned about infection on my wounds’, ‘My left arm appears to be twice its normal size’ and ‘Should I see a Doctor?”.

Getting to the front of the queue, I managed all three sentences in rapid succession to a bemused pharmacist, who clearly didn’t understand my flawless pronunciation, and asked a number of quickfire clarification questions which, of course, I had no hope of understanding. There then followed an uncomfortable pause where we both realised that there was negligible common ground. As far as she was concerned, I may as well have been asking for cough medicine, and, for all I know, she may well have been asking me to exit her shop.

I decided to break the impasse by removing the bandage and showing her my elbow. This brought forth a series of ‘merde’s from both pharmacist and interested customers. Fortunately, it also drew the interest of the second pharmacist. Knowing by now that I was beaten on the language front, I asked if he spoke any English, and he said he knew only a few words. Delightfully, three of those words were ‘Walk this way’, as he beckoned me into a side room. I was very tempted to tell him the joke about the man in the Chemist shop who asks for some vaseline, and the Chemist says ‘Walk this way’. ‘If I could walk that way’, says the customer, ‘I wouldn’t need the vaseline’. The prospect of translating this wasn’t too attractive, and I didn’t really know my audience, so I kept the joke to myself.

Anyway, into the side room, where all dressings were removed, and the ‘merde’s were interspersed with some light tutting. The good news was that there was, apparently, no infection, but that the dressings needed to be sorted out properly. I was assured that my new friend could see to this, and he prepared all manner of new dressings and gauzes for action. He made something of a point of showing me an antiseptic spray, which he said might sting a little. I fear this might have been my mis-translation – having experienced the spray going on, he might acually have said something like ‘this will hurt like a hot iron directly spraying hydrochloric acid onto your wound’ It’s just I’m sure it sounded like ‘sting a little’.

There was a slightly awkward point when I had to pull my pants down for him to patch the wound on my hip. This he did by kneeling next to me and gently placing gauze and plaster next to my groin. Naturally this was the point at which pharmacist #1 came into the room, interpreted the scene for herself, muttered a quick ‘pardon’, and immediately exited.

The whole episode had lasted about 30 minutes, and we went back to the counter, where my new friend showed me on a map where the doctor was, wrote down his number, and told me how to tell if the wound became infected. I told him I was incredibly grateful asked him how much I owed him.

‘C’est gratuit’

I protested, I should at least be paying for the dressings, I said.

‘Non, c’est normal’

I shook his hand. I wanted to kiss him, but I could sense that Pharmacist #2 was giving me daggers.

It was the second time on the trip that we’d been subjected to random acts of kindness. It’s an odd feeling, being on the receiving end of someone being so kind, just because they can be; you feel warm and unworthy at the same time.

With my left arm auditioning for a part in The Invisible Man, I headed back, and on to find a restorative cold drink…

 

 

 

Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part three

We attempted an early exit from La Louviere; largely as we were keen to avoid any untoward geriatric female attention, although I assured the team that at 7 in morning, anyone we met would at least be fairly sober. As we grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel, however, there was a surprising amount of activity, the pinball machine was rattling away in a fog of cigarette smoke, and everyone in the bar seemed to be nursing the first beer of the day. No sign of Very Mary though, which was a relief to CB#1.

We escaped, and started heading South, following directions from our trusty google maps service. Unfortunately GM had more tricks up her sleeve today (Bean by now had started referring to GM as ‘she’ because of the satnav voice, and was beginning to have something of a tempestuous relationship with her), and we ended up being directed to a grass track, which took us past the awesomeness of the Strépy-Thieu boat-lift and then onto a mud track that was impossible to ride.

ascenceur_strepy

After the customary swear-fest, we dragged the bikes through the mud and forest and found a road, which we managed to stay on as far as Chimay. I only knew Chimay through the beer, which has a fearsome reputation (it varies between 7% and 9% alcohol content), and is brewed by Trappist monks. I think if I was employed for any length of time in producing and tasting this beer, I’d probably lose the power of rational speech, so it probably works quite well all round.

We didn’t see much of Chimay other than to have a fairly civilised lunch, as we just wanted to get this one out of the way. Bean and I were both feeling a bit fragile, and although we were both ok to ride, I had a horrible shooting pain in my left arm every time we hit any sort of a bump. So imagine my delight when we hit a section of cobbles that lasted for 3 miles. ‘You’ll always get cobbles in Belgium’, said CB#2, helpfully.

If you know you’re cycling and your geography, you’ll know that we were fairly close to the Paris-Roubaix route – this is a bike race, charmingly known as the ‘Hell of the North’, which has been run every year since 1896. It’s known as one of cycling’s toughest races, the course is 260km and normally has over 50km of cobbles. I was whining about 5km of cobbles, but the Paris to Roubaix riders are doing ten times that, and they’re racing at 25mph plus, in groups, often with the cobbles wet (the race is in April), making it even more perilous.

So complaining about the cobbles seemed a bit churlish, As did complaining about the whole pain thing. We were in Southern Belgium by now, just above the Ardennes, and quite a few times we’d get to the top of a climb, look to our side, and see hundreds and hundreds of war graves. These weren’t the big American and Allied cemeteries that are more in the North of the country and closer to Ardennes, they were more the local ones for French and Belgian soldiers whose bodies were repatriated – but the numbers were still pretty astonishing, especially for such a rural area. CB#1 reckoned that any one of those soldiers would have loved to be doing what we were doing, which was both a charming and a grounding thought, so with that in mind, we carried on pedaling and I ignored the small hammer banging the nail into my elbow every time we hit a bump.

About 80 miles all told, and we ended up in Charleville-Mézières, birthplace of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, and home to a Soviet themed hotel and, as far as we could make out, no pharmacies. On the plus side, a skip and a jump from our gulag was the Place Ducale, which struck us as an excellent place to visit, drink a Rimbaud themed beer, eat mussels and be treated to a free concert from a Belgian heavy rock band. Four things there, very much in descending order of enjoyment.

We kept going South, the next day, rolling into the champagne region, and towards Châlons-en-Champagne. Bean was just on the point of divorcing Mrs Google Maps by now, so we pretty much did the opposite of everything she suggested, and stayed on the roads.   Rolling was the right word for our travel – if you’d taken a knife through the route we took South, and looked at the cross section it would have looked like a corrugated roof. This made for fairly easy, if slightly monotonous cycling, and we decided to fox Mrs GM by taking a main road for the last 20 miles. Cyclng in the gutter of a main road is a challenge anywhere, it’s worse with crosswinds, and much worse with cars and lorries that seem to see you as a target rather than a fellow traveller. On the stretch we took, it was pretty busy, but we were mostly given a reasonable amount of space, and only got buzzed once (predictably by a hot-hatch full of yoofs) – it would have been a far worse experience in the UK.

Anyway, we got to Châlons-en-Champagne without incident, and then went out again, dutifully following directions to our hotel, which was not only in a different part of town, but also in a different part of the space-time continuum…

 

 

Adventures on two wheels – Lille to Paris – part two

I didn’t see the bump on the path; it was where the tarmac changed to concrete slab, and I would probably have gone over a similar bump a thousand times without any problems.

However, this time, my front wheel had a pretty severe reaction, and popped up violently into the air, probably helped by all the weight on the back wheel. It shot up so sharply that it threw the handlebars out of my hands, and by the time I’d managed to grab them back, the wheel had twisted to one side, and the bike, and me, went over. As the handlebars whizzed up again, I caught sight of my watch, which I remember was reading a very healthy 22 mph. I was fairly pleased with this, but as you can imagine, I had very little chance to congratulate myself before I hit the ground. In fairly rapid succession, I landed on head, hip, elbow, fist and shoulder, and came to rest quite a bit further down the road. I’d seen everything happen in slow-mo, as you do, and as I slid to a halt, I was looking behind me. Rather worryingly, I could see Bean’s front wheel bearing down on me, so I decided I’d be better off with my eyes closed. I waited for the next crash, which, surprisingly, wasn’t with my face.

Bean, with alert reactions that would have been impressive for someone a third of his age, had managed to swerve to avoid me completely. However, he didn’t have a great deal of time to celebrate, as his front wheel then hit a water bottle that had been thrown out of my bike, and he went over as well.

All was quiet, and thankfully, the Chuckle Brothers, who had been cycling a few yards behind, managed to avoid the carnage, and took a victim each.  I don’t remember a massive amount about the next few minutes, other than checking that I could still move everything,  managing to stand up, and noticing quite a bit of blood spilling out of the back of my elbow. With CB#1 taking charge, we used a water bottle to clean up, and some alcohol to clean the wound, which reminded me what pain could really be like. Steristrips were improvised from CB#2’s tape – I’m not sure if these came from a first aid kit or a tool kit, and I didn’t really care. CB#2 had a couple of bandages and dressings which we used to patch up the bits that were bleeding most.

We didn’t have much option but to get pedaling, in the hope that La Louviere would boast some sort of state of the art walk in medical centre with on-site pharmacy and, ideally, a 24 hour on call cycle mechanic. As the next twenty miles dragged by, I’d got it into my head that, at the very least, the hotel would have some sort of first aid kit, and as we rolled gently into town, I’d already rehearsed all of my lines for the conversation with reception.

Unfortunately, those lines never really got used – the hotel that we checked in to had a receptionist who was not really that interested in taking in guests, never mind giving any sort of medical help, although she did look up the nearest pharmacy that would be open. Unfortunately this was 5 miles away, and by the time we got there it would have been shut. I asked if there was somewhere nearer , and got a very impressive gallic shrug.

Fortunately, help was at hand, in the form of Mary. Let’s call her Very Mary for the sake of this narrative. She was very old, and wore a dress that would have suited her better when she was very young. She was very ebullient, and was attached to a very small dog. And she was very, very drunk. Mary had heard the conversation about the chemist, and offered to help. Asking someone to gardez her chien, she set off on foot to find a chemist, which I thought was quite courageous, but then realised she’d just popped round the corner, to see if knocking loudly on the local chemist’s door might persuade them to adjust their opening hours. She returned a few minutes later, and said ‘merde’ a few times while executing today’s second perfect gallic shrug.

We decided to have a beer, partly in the hope that it might deaden the pain a bit. As chief communications officer, I was dispatched to order the beer, so back into the hotel I went, where behind me, my left arm started to cause quite a commotion. Unfortunately, the makeshift bandage had failed to stem the bleeding, and I was merrily chucking blood out all over the barroom floor. This stirred Very Mary into both temper and action, and shouting ‘merde’ again a few more times, she shot out of the bar, around the corner to the chemist, to see if banging more loudly on the door would be more effective. Apparently it wasn’t, and she returned, crestfallen, a few minutes later, inexplicably carrying half a dozen eggs. We had a further conversation, involving more merde/shrugging, and Very Mary concluded that this was simply not how visitors to Belgium should be feeling. She then announced that she was going to go home, and raced (in a fairly uncoordinated style), out of the bar, leaving behind her dog, her eggs, and a faint smell of Pernod.

We decided to wait for Very Mary, although there really wasn’t any clue as to when, or whether, she would return. But one beer and 30 minutes later, she appeared again, with a large paper bag, which turned out to contain a variety of gauzes, pads and bandages. As it turned out, this was exactly what we needed, and I don’t think we could have been more grateful. We bought Mary a beer to say thanks, and unfortunately she seemed to interpret this as a bit of a come-on, also encouraged by us telling her that it was CB#1’s birthday. CB#1 is very much the eye-candy of the four of us (although he doesn’t have much in the way of competition) and it all started to get a bit uncomfortable, as we had a number of lines from anniversary songs, followed by the sort of ‘Grrrr’ animal noises that you might hear in an Austin Powers film, and finally some whispered exchanges between Very Mary and her friend, who, like many of the people we were beginning to meet, seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. If you can imagine someone with the face of Freddie Starr, the skin colour of Dale Winton, the body of HM the Queen, and the dress sense of Madonna c1990, you’ll get a general idea of what Very Mary’s friend looked like.

All this was getting a bit intimidating, so I explained in French to Very Mary and her friend that I needed to take a shower. Their bloodshot eyes seem to light up for a moment as they nudged each other, and I had to explain that this was in order to sort out my wounds, and not an open invitation. Then I explained my plans in English to CB#1, who immediately responded that there was no way that he was being left in the bar with those two. Fortunately, I don’t think Very Mary was paying attention, otherwise she might have taken offence.

I hope this doesn’t come across as ungrateful. I’m incredibly thankful that a complete stranger in a strange town took pity on a wounded idiot. And I do wonder, had that been Belgian cyclists wandering into an English hotel, whether they’d have had anything, or anyone, like this as a rescue.

Bean and myself shared out gauzes and bandages between us and got patched up. We even managed to get something to eat. Not a very auspicious start to five days of relaxed cycling, and we were full of trepidation for the miles ahead. As it turned out, we were right to be concerned…

Adventures on Two Wheels – Lille to Paris – Part One

Off again for another adventure, this time into France and Belgium. We’ve been going cycling in June for a few years now, and settled into a fairly relaxed approach of cycling stupid distances with limited preparation, sta​ying ​in cheap hotels that rarely fail to disappoint, and generally enjoying what the cycle paths of Europe can offer us.

We normally assign roles at the start of the journey, which this year were as follows:

  • Myself – head of communications, largely driven by my pitifully small knowledge of the french language, but compensated by what I consider to be one of the best French accents in Norfolk, and a full set of Gallic hand gestures
  • Mr Bean – head of navigation – as he had not only an iPhone with google maps, but a data plan that worked, headphones to take instruction from the phone, and an array of batteries that could keep us, or a small village, going for a ​matter of days
  • Chuckle Brother #1 – the voice of reason, and deputy in both communications and navigation
  • Chuckle Brother #2 – chief mechanic and head of security. More on CB#2’s particular talents later

Our bicycles for the journey were prepared as ever with some care – they tend to be road bikes, adjusted to within a fraction of a millimetre to deliver the fastest and most aerodynamic riding position, but then loaded down with not only a rider but panniers holding five days worth of clothes, energy bars, spare parts and whatever else it takes to get the four of us from point to point.

As a result, our perfectly balanced machines end up handling pretty much as you’d expect​,​ if you attached the weight of two fairly hefty infants over the back wheel, and one over the handlebars. You have to be a bit careful of this lack of stability, as it means that your super lightweight bike ends up being both super heavy and completely unstable. And if your route takes you away from a road, then you have even more of a challenge…

Anyway, after a ridiculously early start, we arrived in Lille, and, to our surprise were reunited with our bikes, which, due to some odd complications in the way that Eurostar works, had made their own way there. The plan was to get out of Lille and head for Belgium, so Bean fired up google maps and we set off on the exciting prospect of exiting a large ​French city and not getting separated or injured.

The Lille town planners have done a top job in ensuring that all the main roads have cycle lanes, but unfortunately there are two separate systems, which may well be because of funding and the way that local government takes decisions. It’s almost as if one city council decided to have their bike lanes on the inside of the street , with cars and lorries hurtling by outside the cyclist, then either ran out of money, or power, or both, and another council ca​me in and decided it was a much better idea​ to have the bike lanes on the outside ​of the road. Consequently there is a bizarre series of chicanes, where you swap from inside to outside, and vice versa, in the opposite direction to the cars and lorries. You’d think this would be ridiculously dangerous for all parties, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be right.

We managed to get out of Lille in one piece, and started pedaling in the general direction of Belgium, and the specific direction of La Louviere, about 70 miles away. Google maps did a reasonably good job at first, taking us on little roads across the countryside and all was reasonably well. After about 10 miles of this, we discovered a bit of a flaw in google maps’ cycle routing software. To explain, here is a diagram showing a bicycle, ideal for touring the roads of Europe:

Image (64)

And here is a diagram showing what google maps thinks is a bicycle:

Image (63)

Really, some of the routes that google maps took us in were ridiculous – I don’t think you’d want to walk along most of them if you had a choice – here’s a picture of one of the more manageable ones (you can tell that from the fact that the bikes are upright):

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Turning from a crumbling shale road onto another unmade track, CB#1 celebrated his birthday by falling off, although his bike had slowed by the time he went over, due to his front wheel disappearing into a gravel trench. As a result, it was one of those comedy falls that take place at negligible speed. However, comedy moment or not, nobody laughed. It was just the first fall, after all, and like punctures, you don’t want to laugh too loudly as it’ll be your turn next.

Eventually, we managed to find a road, and then into Belgium, where we hooked up with the Ravel bike network, which, all things considered, is a thing of wonder – a network of bike routes across Belgium, mainly on converted railway tracks and canal paths, but with a bit of consideration for the cyclist as well. We got onto the Ravel canal path at about 40 miles, and by 50 miles we were flying along, no other bikes on the path, nice flat tarmac and a slight crosswind. In a ‘this is the life I was keen to lead’ style, I decided to get to the front of the group and see how fast I could comfortably go, and, to my surprise, and possibly because we’d been messing about for so long getting to this point, felt pretty good as we got up to 20mph. At 52 miles, I looked at my watch and we were hitting 21mph, and at 53 miles we were easily hitting 22 mph. Nothing too exciting for a road cyclist, but a fair lick for a touring pace. The canal shimmered lightly as we whizzed past coal barges, and the birds were tweeting their merry Flemish songs in the trees to the other side of the path. All was very right with the world.

And then something horrible happened…

 

 

Commuting for Dummies

Firstly, gentle reader*, apologies. I promised that I’d be writing blogs pretty much non-stop in 2016, and I seem to have missed that target fairly dramatically since April. In the spirit of ‘plan, say what you’re going to do, then do it’, which is the sort of anodyne nonsense that I might lay down in front of my children, I’ve managed to completely miss the mark.

And it’s not that there hasn’t been much to write home about. In the past, The Emu has brought you news on a) The state of dogs in the Emu household, b) being a parent, c) the joys of spending as much as possible of your life in France, d) the joys of running e) the not quite matching joys of cycling, f) the state of the music industry g) the world of employment, h) the state of the glorious car crash of Norwich City’s footballing existence, and i) the state of the world as we know it. And pretty much all points from a) through i) have needed some sort of commentary in the last six months.

To save me and you the bother of a really long update, however, this is the very quick summary from Emu towers:

  • a) Teenage angst continues against a backdrop of loveliness and barking
  • b) Teenage angst continues against a backdrop of loveliness and mortality
  • c) Not currently relevant
  • d) Completely knackered
  • e) Hills in June were fun and scary; Velodrome in August, more fun & more scary
  • f) Beginning to think that anything produced after 1979 was a bit of a waste of effort
  • g) Not currently relevant
  • h) Surprisingly positive, although currently holding my breath until Newcastle away on Wednesday
  • i) Completely knackered

That’s us all up to date then, eh. Maybe some more on those later if you’re interested.

Or if I am. Because there’s been so much chopping and changing of late that it’s meant a bit of what analysts might call self-reflection. You get to a point in your life when a)-i) (or their equivalents) are the things that define you, then they all change, or fall away, and you kind of wonder what definition to your life is actually left. Which is far too deep and self-absorbed for this blog, but just so as you know, it’s currently all kicking off on the reflection front.

Meanwhile, and in a fairly convoluted way, I’m going to spend a few words on g), if you’ll humour me. At the end of July, I left my job. I didn’t have anything to go to, it just felt the right thing to do, and there wasn’t really a role where I thought I could make a difference any more. So off I went, waving goodbye to some quite wonderful people whose company I really enjoyed, and who it’s unlikely I’ll see again much in the future, if at all.  I’ve worked with some of these people for over twenty years, and we got to my last Friday, and at 3pm, lots of smiling faces surrounded my desk (and blocked any potential exit path). A short, kind and embarrassing speech was made. A long, rambling and embarrassing response was made. Hands were shaken, promises made, and lots of us went off to the pub, where drinks were bought, and I tried (and failed) to tell people that working together had made a brilliant difference to me. Which it had. And by 11pm, having reached a state which Private Eye used to call ‘tired and emotional’, it was pretty much time to call it a night. And in an unusual reversal of roles, and one which I just know is going to rebound on me very soon, I was accompanied home by my 18 year-old son who, sober as a judge, watched on benignly as his father pedalled furiously home. And I woke up the next day, without too much of a morning head, and started wondering what to do next, and thinking about the people and the conversations I was going to miss the most.

It’s all a bit weird, and I need to sort out, bit by bit, what to do next on the working for a living front, and how best to do it.

One thing that really is important to the future is the degree to which I travel to, from and for work. In the past, my criteria was that any job I took on needed to be at a place that I could run, or, at a stretch, cycle to, each morning. When my main office moved from an office two miles from my home in Norwich, up to Newcastle, this made the challenge a stretch too far. Being injured (see d) above), means that the commuting radius is dragging inwards, but as it happens I’m currently doing some work that necessitates sitting at a table for several hours at a time; this specific table being in my shed at the top of the garden. So, currently, my morning commute takes about 60 seconds in good weather, assuming the dog isn’t planning to ambush me en route.

And if anything, as far as a commute goes, that’s a little bit too short. I know, I know, some people just can’t be satisfied can they? After all, I’ve spent much of the last thirty (and practically all of the last five) years complaining about business travel, and now I’m whining on about not having enough of it. But, in my defence, all I’m trying to flag is that sometimes that routine, and gap between home and work, can be a great time to set yourself up for the day, or evening, depending on which way you’re travelling.

I spent a brilliant weekend last month with my parents; two of the kindest, smartest and funniest people I know. I’m not just saying that because they’re my parents, they just really are all of those things at once – I reckon I can do, at a push, two out of three of kind, funny and smart at any given time, but never all three at once. Like all families, we tell stories, and my mum was telling me about her morning commute with my dad in the 1950’s. They both had jobs that meant driving to the railway station each morning, and to do this, my dad had bought a Morris 8 ‘Tourer’. I think the word Tourer, meant ‘without roof’, so my mum had to borrow (and break) her landlady’s sewing machine to make a roof for it. The car also featured a battery that discharged itself overnight, so had to be bump started each morning. This all sounds a bit of a nightmare, but I’ve seen a picture of the car and, despite all of the above, the rusting running boards and the sheer impracticality of owning it, I still can’t believe they sold a thing of such great beauty. Apparently they had to do so in order to buy a pram to transport my elder sister about in, so I’ve mentally laid the blame at her door ever since.

Anyway, back to their morning commute. My dad, apparently, as the one who knew how the car worked (and who knew how to drive), would sit in the driver’s seat, and my mum would start pushing, an exercise which wasn’t really helped by her office shoes having a fashion-conscious 3” heel. Slow progress would be made, until around the corner would walk a smart middle aged man in city clothes, wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella. Without a word, he’d place his hat and umbrella on top of the car, push along with my mum until the motor engaged, retrieve his hat and umbrella, and continue his walk to work. This would have been odd in itself, but apparently it happened every day, without a word being exchanged, for a number of weeks, until my dad finally got the starter motor fixed (or bought a pram, I’m not sure which happened first).

I was reminded of this story earlier this week, when I had the first commute for over a month, down to London for the day. To start with, I wasn’t quite sure what to wear. I had a half day conference with some IT Director types in the morning, followed by an afternoon where I had to be approved for a British Library reader’s pass, followed by a few hours where I needed to look and behave like a serious researcher. To add to the sartorial dilemma, I had to cycle to the station and back. I’d had a similar problem the week before, when I’d done some work up in York for the day, returning back just in time to get to see the mighty Canaries just about hang on to a 2:1 win mid-week against a very average Wigan side. I was still wearing suit and tie in the stands, and at half time got a load of abuse from a complete stranger – “what, are you f’ing selling f’ing stocks and f’ing shares” he snorted at me as he pushed by to the pie stand, giving an excellent example of what passes for wit in Norfolk. Anyway, I opted this morning for a linen suit, to compromise the cycle/seminar/library dilemma, with a lively blue and white checked shirt to appeal to the IT Directors. I teamed (as Trinny and Susannah would no doubt say) this outfit with some brown DM shoes, partly because I knew that most of the IT directors were from the public sector. Honestly, you might not think it, but a lot of thought goes into looking an uncoordinated mess for the modern man, and even more impressive when you think that this was all put together at 0530, in the dark, as I’d managed to get a cheap ticket to London on the 0624 train.

Anyway, these are all the social interactions I had on the journey: Said hello to the ticket collector at Norwich. A nod to the train guard when I got on the train. An ‘excuse me’ to my fellow commuter as I got up to get a cup of tea. A cheery hello to the lady who makes the tea on the buffet car, and several good mornings to the group of people who make it their business to treat the buffet car as a non-alcoholic standing room only pub at 0700 in the morning. A quiet chat with an old friend who I used to work with. A thank you to the ticket collector in London, as the new ‘ticket free’ mobile ticket isn’t recognised by any of the automatic barriers. A resigned smile to the owner of the armpit I was pressed up against on the Northern line. A good morning to the receptionist at the hotel where the conference was.

In most cases, I got a bit of a good morning back. Which was nice, but, on reflection, not really enough, because as I walked down the stairs to the conference room, I looked down and noticed that my flies had been undone since I’d left the house that morning. Worse, there was a lively piece of blue and white checked shirt, literally flagging the fact that they were open.

I mentioned earlier about the conversations that I was going to miss, now that I was no longer at work. As it goes, ‘Your flies are undone’, seems like an odd one to miss, but, I thought, as I made the necessary adjustments before walking in to the meeting, quite important.

 

 

* I’m in the shed. Will be down in 5 minutes, ok?

Ladies and Gentlemen, I Give You…The Cramps!

(For the gig review of The (wonderful) Cramps at UEA in 1986, come back another time)

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If you should find yourself travelling through Provence any time soon, as you saunter down South, below Avignon, taking in the cherry trees and the lavender, relaxing with a couple of bottles of rosé and dreaming of a sunny retirement, do take a detour to look up at Mont Ventoux. MV sticks out like a sore thumb in the rolling countryside, and, if there was any justice in the world, ought to be removed. In the unlikely event that you’re a creationist and you’re reading this blog, a possible explanation is that He created a beautiful countryside of rolling hills and gorgeous valleys and then had a complete moment of aberration, possibly allowing His wayward office boy to run some calculations while He was off working out marine food chains. Or something.

If you’re not familiar with MV I’ll give you a bit of a duffer’s guide. It stands at 1,912 metres above sea level, and dominates the landscape as the biggest peak in the area. You can pick it out quite easily, as, on the South side in particular, the top third of the mountain is like a Star Wars moonscape, a desolate area of rock and cliff, that seems to light up when it catches the sun. Unfortunately that’s not all that often, as MV also has its own microclimate, which involves a good deal of cloud cover, rain, occasional snow at any time of the year, and winds (hence the name) that can whip up to 180 mph. It is, in the most beautiful part of Europe, an ugly bully of a mountain, often closed down for access due to weather, and regularly the scene of ambulance rescues of innocent walkers and cyclists.

And, naturally enough, a point of pilgrimage for cyclists, who have seen the summit finish on the Tour de France and want to experience it for themselves. It has an iconic status amongst cycling fans, as it regularly features in the Tour, and can be a real turning point, as riders break down part way up, as the stupid gradient, the horrible weather, and some jerk running beside you in a devil’s outfit all take their miserable toll. Famously, the British cyclist Tommy Simpson collapsed and died on the mountain in 1967, and was later found to have had a stomach full of brandy and barbiturates, which I believe were very much the de facto energy gels of the time. There’s a memorial to him about 2km from the summit, where cyclists touchingly still leave water bottles, jerseys, and for all I know, bottles of Purple Hearts as little gestures to the then hero of British cycling.

And over the years, as cycling fans will know, there have been some epic battles getting up to the top of the mountain. Charly Gaul won here in 1959, Eddy Merckx cemented his reputation as the ‘Cannibal’ in 1970, and if you pitch up in late June you can try your hand for the Cannibal competition for multiple ascents (or, for the ladies, the fetchingly titled ‘Cannibalette’). In later years, battles were fought out in the heat and oppressive air between the really big names like Beloki, Virenque, Armstrong and Pantani. In 2000, after an astonishing fight to the top, Armstrong was alleged to have gifted the stage to Pantani, but vehemently denied doing so. So he probably did.

You get to the summit from one of three routes, which go from the villages of Malaucene, Bedoin and Sault. The most common route on the tour is from Bedoin, although it’s not really any easier or harder than the others – each is between 21 and 26km long, and goes between a 8% and a 12% incline. There are no flat bits to speak of, so effectively you have to constantly pedal unless you want to fall off, which towards the top feels like quite an attractive option. On the south side, the ski chalet at Chalet Reynard marks the start of the weird moonscape part, and here the winds throw can throw you about a bit. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s a sheer wall of rock to one side of you, and a vertical drop, sometimes of a hundred metres, on the other. It’s a narrow road, and if you’re headed up, you need to keep hard to the right for fear of the cars, motorbikes and cycles going flat out on the way down. It takes you the best part of two hours to get to the top (unless you’re a pro – the time trial record is a jaw-dropping 55 minutes), and about 30 minutes to descend, and less than that if you don’t use your brakes. When we came here a couple of years ago, one of us clocked 50mph on the way down, particularly impressive in that he’d previously crashed, was on a rented bike, and had a young family at home.

Naturally enough, the challenge amongst cyclists is to do three ascents (and descents) in a day, thereby granting you membership of, and bragging rights for, the ‘Club de Cinglés’. I had to look up ‘Cinglés’ in the dictionary, and it means slash, sting, or whip, which seems about right. A few of us had come perilously close to achieving membership in 2013, citing a number of reasons for missing the target, including crashes, lack of preparation and severe emotional torpor. I had a reasonable excuse – I had to cycle the equivalent of the walk of shame back through Benoit after the second climb, nursing a bout of cramp that was so severe that I was physically unable to detach myself from the bike for several hours afterwards. So this time, the plan was a) to do the three ascents, and b) not get cramp.

To hit target a), I spent a ridiculous amount of time in the preceding months on static bikes. If you’re not familiar with these, imagine the boredom of running in a gym on a treadmill for an hour, then multiply the boredom factor by around 3. Anyway, the point was to get my body used to pedalling for long periods of time without any interruption. You have to keep your concentration going as well, otherwise your pulse drops and you just spin the pedals. Consequently a single 30 minute podcast can last you well over a week. To simulate multiple ascents, I used Mrs E’s big shopping trip to London one Saturday to do three one hour sessions back to back, emailing her attractive pictures during the course of the day of post-workout t-shirts. To her credit, she only used the word ‘twat’ on two of her replies.

Target b) was slightly more challenging, as I seem to manage to get cramp these days by almost any exercise, or sometimes from just going to bed, but, especially by long endurance stuff, so I put my faith in some serious intensive efforts, a disgusting looking pink electrolyte drink and by necking a load of magnesium tablets in the week before the ride.

Another blog, ‘Why grown men choose to cycle up mountains purely so that they can cycle down them again’ will be published in due course, but only after I find a way to write the conclusion. At the moment I’m afraid I just don’t have the mental capacity to answer the exam question. Anyway, that will describe the blow by blow up/down/up/down/up/down elements to the ride, and will culminate in the description of the final ascent, around the iconic hairpin to the summit, and into cloud cover so bad that I couldn’t even see where the altitude marker was. (It also made for the weirdest descent, whizzing down the hills to Malaucene at 25mph, with about 10m of visibility and the brakes just about keeping the rain off the rims. My teeth were clenched so hard together that my jaw still ached the next day.)

And, due to the intensive training regime, or a good slice of luck, the whole exercise from mile zero to mile 85 was conducted in a cramp free zone. Unfortunately, the entire route was 90 miles, and it was 5 miles from the end of the journey that I decided it was time to stop for a wee. I decided this a bit late on, halfway round a corner, and tried to stop in a hurry on the wet road. As a result, the back wheel locked and I skidded to a halt, just about getting my cleated shoe out of the pedal in the time it took to say ‘f*ck me I’ve got cramp in both calves’.

Just about managed to remove the bike from underneath me without any further damage, and stretched out a bit, then had to get over the road to a nearby tree.

You’ve probably observed, that, no matter how inelegant the average middle aged male cyclist looks when they’re on the bike, they look ten times more ridiculous off it, and I don’t think I’d have won any catwalk points for the mince across the tarmac in cleats (a sort of backward high heel), Lycra shorts, fingerless gloves, headscarf and ridiculous helmet, all done while trying to keep my calves from going into spasm. Having reached the side of the road without further damage, the challenge really began.

When I started cycling, years ago, a pair of shorts, ideally with a bit of padding in them, was all you really needed to keep, well, everything in order. These days, along with carbon frames, precision shifters and fully cleated shoes, comes the ‘bib-short’, previously only ever worn by professional teams. Oh, and John Curry. Nowadays, no middle aged cyclist would ever consider themselves fully dressed without first slipping into a pair of bib shorts, ideally in one size smaller than you’d have for, say, ballet tights. And, once in, they say, you never go back.

Which is all very well, until you need to go for a wee, although there is a technique, which I will now try to describe, sparing the blushes of our more sensitive readers. First, place your feet approximately shoulder length apart. Loosen your upper clothing as far as is possible. Check over both shoulders that there are no onlookers. With your left hand, and with your thumb pressed against your stomach, pull down the front of the bib, while bending forward slightly from the waist. While holding this position, use your right hand to do what your right hand would normally do in this situation.

On no account during this exercise, and particularly mid-flow, should you allow your legs to cramp up. Because, if this happens, it’s quite likely that you’ll catapult forward quite dramatically, and, the only thing you’ll be able to think of is the police evidence scene in ‘Withnail and I’.

And you’d better hope that there’s a tree in your way to break your fall as you catapult forwards with both hands, um, occupied. And you’d also better hope that you’re still wearing a helmet as you hit the tree. And you’d really hope that there’s a washing machine at the place you’re staying at. Because, if those things don’t happen, it would be quite embarrassing, wouldn’t it? Luckily, my luck was in.

I’d texted my friend G at the summit, and he kindly waited for me as I finally got back to the apartment we’d rented, near Malaucene. Managed to get off the bike without any further injury, and he offered to carry it up the steps for me.

“You go first”, I said.

I’d been out for about ten hours and was pretty familiar with the weather by now. Consequently I was anxious to remain downwind.