14) Basel to Dijon

The first ride of the 2017 season came late. James and I planned to ride the EV6 from Basel to Dole, and then head north to Dijon. It’s a nice flat easy ride mainly on bike tracks, and we’d managed to convince a newbie by the name of Dr. Paul to tag along.

Quite how that would pan out was hard to say. Paul is an academic and he conforms to the stereotype impeccably: highly intelligent and capable of extreme feats of abstract thought, but anxious and out of sorts in the real world of objects and kinetics. Ask him to explain how vertical transport technology innovation will be impacted by Brexit and watch him fly; ask him to tie his own shoe-laces and he becomes apprehensive and sweaty and has trouble breathing. And that’s when he’s sober.

So a trip involving bicycles, putting up tents, taking down tents and lots of heavy drinking promised to go wrong in an almost infinite number of ways.

Day 1

At 7.15 am we boarded a train in Geneva, cracked a breakfast bottle of champagne and gazed smugly at the morning commuters, most of whom were watching us apprehensively. Something about drinking first thing in the morning and English accents makes foreigners uneasy because they think you’re going to get pissed, aggressively sing songs about winning World War II and smash the place up. After a few drinks this lazy stereotyping rather got on our nerves so we smashed the place up. No we didn’t.

Barely 15 km into the ride, Paul complained that his arse was hurting. To punish him for whining James chose that moment to break the news that yes, we’d said the ride was flat, but in actual fact we’d lied and it was uphill all the way to lunch. This upset him so badly that we were forced to stop for a drink.

The booze did the trick and we set off up the hill. It honestly wasn’t a big deal, only about 200 vertical metres, but it was searingly hot and up an annoying rocky path, and to be fair Paul is about 2 metres tall and was riding James’ knackered old commuter bike which was far too small for him, so it was hard work and we were pleased to arrive in Illfurth bang on lunchtime.

But this being rural France in late July all the restaurants were shut. There was a little grocery store open and normally I’d have shrugged, bought some bread and cheese and a couple of cases of wine and had a nice picnic, but when you’ve been cycling all morning, and spent the last 2 hours riding up a hill dreaming of a huge lunch served by smiling waiters the prospect of a picnic is dispiriting to an almost existential degree. Not to over-dramatise or anything.

Anyway, five minutes later everything was fine, the nice lady in the grocery store told us there was a great restaurant called L’Alcove 20 minutes away in a little village called Heidwiller, we phoned, it was open, we booked a table and half an hour later were tucking into fresh fish from the nearby Doubs washed down with a delicious Riesling. A close call to be sure, but the thing about this bicycle touring malarkey is that without the lows you don’t get the highs.

The restaurant was on a canal, which we’d be following for the rest of the day, so we made the reasonable assumption that our afternoon would be nice and flat. Reasonable and completely wrong. About 15 locks over a 20 km stretch took the canal up over 100 vertical meters. But it was a gorgeous day, and we had a little nap after lunch and all in all it beat the shit out of working.

That evening, in a little town called Bourogne we ate another enormous meal in l’Amuse Bouche, a restaurant with a very pretty terrace overlooking the river, upon which they would not serve you food and opposite which was a small lake offering up perfect camping spots. We chose one and set about pitching camp when a man with a torch came tramping round to investigate. I assumed we were about to be told to fuck off out of it, and being English had already started apologising when he issued a friendly greeting and warned us that very early the next morning hoards of fishermen and fisherwomen would show up for a 24 hour fishathon. But we were more than welcome to camp there, and by the way the next morning there’d be coffee and croissants for us at the club house if we stopped by.

Sure enough the next morning there they all were, politely taking care not to make too much noise because at some point during the night something horrid had gone off in Paul’s underwear, forcing James to make a frantic scramble out of the tent and sleep outside, and they didn’t want to wake him.

Day 2

Under blue sunny skies, a flat cycle track running alongside the canal, well away from trucks and cars, winding through scenic loveliness, took us all the way to L’Isle-sur-le-Doubs where we showered in the local campsite and then ate an extremely mediocre lunch in the only restaurant in town, a pizzeria that couldn’t even be bothered to make decent pizza. Luckily the wine was OK so we filled ourselves full of that and set off again.

The section of the EV6 from L’Isle-sur-le-Doubs to Besancon is basically perfect. It scores 10 on pretty much every criteria important to the middle aged cycle tourist. Perfect flat track with new tarmac in pristine condition? Check. Stunning scenery? Check. Little bars along the way to replenish your soul? Check. Free drugs? Check. Hordes of sexually available attractive members of the opposite sex? Check.

In truth, two of those aren’t, but then who needs drugs and sex when you have a bike and all day to ride it?

And then, about 10 km away from Baume-les-Dames, with relatively little warning we were hit by the mother of all thunderstorms. Luckily I have an apparently endless reservoir of good luck in this area, no doubt thanks to some previous incarnation of me being an insufferable goody two shoes, so we managed to shelter under a bridge right at the moment when the storm tried to dump its load of water and electricity right on our heads.

It was a laugh. We sat and rested under our bridge with the storm smashing everything up all around, and Dr. Paul unnerved us by invoking science to predict how likely we were to die horribly any minute so we drank the whiskey James had brought, just in case these were our last moments. Then when everything calmed down a bit we cycled through light, not-unpleasant rain to Baume-les-Dames where everyone was drunk, so we joined them for a beer.

Whilst we nursed our beers a hen party showed up, clearly as drunk as everyone else and the bride to be was forced to perform a series of sexually explicit acts on a large dildo for the crowd outside the bar, then kiss everyone. Small town life is pretty weird but it was very funny.

After a couple of beers the sun came out so we set off for a promising restaurant about 10 km away called Le Cruzoet. It didn’t disappoint. Fish straight out of the river, tasty local white wines and an impromptu cabaret courtesy of a bat which flew into the restaurant and spazzed out for ten minutes causing the proprietors to run around in little circles shrieking in French.

We left feeling drunk and full, and because it was a glorious night we rode 25 km in the dark before finally finding a place to pitch camp just as another storm started to whip up. Exhausted I crawled into my tent as the wind got stronger and spent the rest of the night regretting having camped under a tree.

Day 3

Riding a bike next to a canal is a delightful way to spend your time, especially if punctuated with regular stops to top up on booze and food, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of variation, so in retrospect it all sort of blurs into one. Which is a convoluted way to saying I can’t really remember shit about day 3. The photos tell me it was a bit grey, but not unpleasant, and it rained but yet again we sheltered under a bridge. I do remember a mad rush to get to a restaurant in time to be served, only to be greeted by a miserable owner who we managed to piss off really quickly, and then we rode some more and arrived in Dole, the end of the ride for James and Paul.

We found a bar, ordered some brews, and I was just formulating the rudest way to congratulate Paul on not having injured himself, broken anything, caused any damage or in any way ruined our holiday when he suddenly flipped out and started cursing at his phone.

Turns out that (according to him) his secretary had booked him on the wrong flight out of Geneva and he was going to miss a very important meeting in Manchester the next day. I suspect he had rather more to do with this fuck up than he let on, but since he’ll probably read this I’m not going to say so.

My plan was to keep riding to Dijon the next day, so I left them to it and went to pitch my tent.

The end