Giles is my brother in law. He loves buying stuff and he’s a hypochondriac. A few years ago, as a result of some phantom twinge in his shoulder he decided that he could no longer ride a standard bike and forked out several thousand pounds on a preposterous American recumbent bike-thing. In order to justify this “investment” to his wife he then had to develop an interest in bicycle touring.
Having singularly failed to rope anyone else into his new-found hobby he turned to me, despite the fact that I was (still am) dismayingly unfit and had none of the kit. In fact the only bike available to me was an 8 speed commuter bike with a frame about 2 sizes too small. The notion of struggling for 300 km in the searing heat on something so inappropriate was absurd so I laughed (and swore) at him and got on with more important things.
Two months later I found myself in Geneva loading said bike onto a train bound for Valence. I could not have been more ill equipped. I had no tent, just a crappy old sleeping bag, no footwear other than flip flops, and my few possessions were stuffed into a tiny little backpack. This was strapped onto the back of the bike with one of those highly elastic badoingy things with a hook at each end, which are possessed by vicious spirits whose sole aim is to tear your face open and gouge out your eyes. The weight on the back of the bike rendered it highly unstable, made worse by my being far too tall for it.
The trip started badly. We only had to cover about 40 km on the first afternoon but we immediately found ourselves on a very bumpy dirt track next to the Rhone. After 5 km of clattering along sweating with fear because the bastard bike had already had enough and was trying to throw me into the brambles, my neck, shoulders and wrists were aching, my t-shirt was drenched with sweat, and my arse was in tatters.
I stopped under a bridge to loudly regret ever having been born, let alone convinced to take part in such a cretinous expedition. It was here that Giles produced two items of clothing that are, it turns out, indispensable to even the most casual of drunk cyclists. The first is a moisture wicking t-shirt, no doubt familiar to all of you, but new to me. They’re made of polyester, Lycra and magic, are incredibly comfortable and stop you sweating even when exerting yourself far beyond your capabilities in extreme heat. The one Giles handed me was a bright yellow Arsenal away shirt. He thought this was utterly hilarious because, you see, he is a stupid Gooner and I, you see, am not.
The second item of clothing is far more sinister. Its technical term is “padded cycling short” which sounds innocuous enough, but it’s actually a revolting form of adult diaper which soaks up anal sweat, dick cheese and god knows what other filthy discharge from around your groin. At the end of a day’s riding they’re disgusting beyond description, but you’re forced to wear them because they protect your arse from your saddle.
Anyway, soon after setting off again we hit tarmac, a substance you take for granted in normal life but quickly realise is the apotheosis of human achievement when you’re on a bike, and gradually I began to realise I might actually enjoy myself. This was confirmed after another hour or so when we stopped in a café on the banks of the Rhone for our first drink. I forget exactly what I had but I can safely say it was a beer, a rosé or a Pastis or possibly one of each. Either way it was cold and delicious. It contained alcohol which numbed the various pains I had developed and imbued me with a sense of euphoria, and it was rich in sugar so gave me an energy boost.
This is a theme to which we will return often, and it took a couple more days of cycling to sink in, but there is no doubt whatsoever that when cycling any distance booze is your bestest friend. It’s the panacea to which, if you have any sense at all, you turn swiftly and repeatedly. There are many many reasons to stop for a drink when you are pedalling through a wine region on a summers day. Here are just a few:
- you’re hot
- you’re tired
- one or more parts of you ache
- you’re thirsty
- you fancy a drink
- you spot a pleasant place for a drink
- you feel like it
- the local wine is bound to be delicious
- you’re bored
- you need a break
- there’s an open bar
- it’s been over an hour since your last drink
- you’re not sure when you’ll get another opportunity
- it’s 3 am and everywhere else is closed
- they have a pinball machine
- there’s time to kill before the next meal
- you might get hit by a truck if you don’t stop right now
By the time we set off again I was feeling much better about life in general and riding a bike down the Rhone in particular. I don’t remember where we ate that night, but I do remember that we slept on a little island in an orchard of Mirabelle plums. This was good for a couple of reasons, the first is that Mirabelles apparently keep away mosquitoes. When you are sleeping outside in the middle of August that’s a big deal. The second is that when you wake up in the morning with a hangover and a foul taste in your mouth, they’re sweet and delicious. Helping yourself to fruit fresh from the tree on a summer’s morning in Provence having just had an enormous al fresco shit in the woods is a special treat for a city boy like me.
The ride progressed in a happy blur of river, restaurants, bars, annoying gravel tracks, blissful tarmac tracks, sunshine, crickets and the dry, herby crackle of Provence. No one fell off their bikes, got crushed by a tractor or arrested. Actually one person did fall off his bike and it wasn’t me or I wouldn’t mention it. One evening we were drunkenly weaving home when we heard the noise of a fete foraine or village fair. Deciding to investigate we turned back, at least I did. Giles had forgotten that his very long bicycle doesn’t do turning. He came crashing off it, much to the delight of a group of local adolescents who jeered and pointed. I was laughing far too hard to help out so he had to disentangle himself and get back on his unwieldy machine on his own, severely impaired by alcohol. This made me and the French adolescents laugh even harder which for some unfathomable reason made Giles angry. It was great.
So was the fete foraine. It went on late, they served ice cold beers and there was one of those reggae / gypsy / punk / a bit of everything else bands that English and American people sneer at while the rest of the world dances joyfully along and wonders what their problem is. The laughing adolescents may have offered us a bang on their joints as well, I can’t really remember.
In fact I can’t remember a lot of things about that trip. It was back in 2011 and no one took any photos so it’s a bit of a blur. I do know that we slept in another orchard on the second night but this one had an automatic irrigation system that came on at 3 am, making me unpleasantly damp and attracting all the mosquitoes in the world to my face. So there’s a pro-tip: check for fucking automatic irrigation systems.
I finished the trip utterly convinced I wanted to do it again. A perfect solution to the drink-drive calorie saturation issue and enormous fun. Furthermore, the ride constituted the first 3 days of a 2 week family holiday, and I usually spend the first week of any holiday winding down from the stress of my job. On a bike tour however, that happens immediately. Your mobile phone gets switched off and saved for an emergency and suddenly – blip – you’re off the grid. Life narrows itself down to a very small set of concerns like where to eat, where to sleep, where to wash, how to avoid big roads and when’s the next drink? The constant movement and rhythm of pedalling is hypnotic and you’re travelling through beautiful countryside. As a brain washing exercise it’s close to perfect.
So the next year we did it again.