On the third trip Giles was replaced by James.
That’s him outside Lyon station, grinning at the camera because he’s about to flash his genitals at everyone. I’ll explain. One day.
Having decided that bike touring was most definitely now a Thing That I Do I had invested in a bit of basic kit like a pair of padded fingerless gloves, but in general I was still woefully and defiantly ill-prepared.
In fact, the whole undertaking promised to be rather more Insha’Allah than previous trips, due to lack of tech. Giles has earned himself the bike-trip-specific nickname of R2D2 because he is small, squeaky, loaded with tech and spits out data at every opportunity. Want to know not just how far you’ve cycled, but also elevation climbed, elevation lost, total time riding, top speed, average speed, steepest gradient etc etc etc etc? The answer is emphatically no, but the R2 unit is there to tell you anyway. He’ll also plan where you will sleep using satellite data, and knows exactly – to the meter – how far you’ll travel during any given time span.
James is more like me, in that he’s happy to follow – and to criticize and poke fun at – someone else if they want to plan every last detail, but can’t be arsed to do it himself. So we decided to set off in the vague direction of “over there”, follow road signs and just see what happens.
How tech-ed up you want to get is obviously a personal choice, but it was interesting to compare the two experiences. We got lost a couple of times, but we also ended up in some unexpected places and had a lot of fun. The only really compelling argument in favour of tech is that without it you spend more time on bigger roads – ones with actual cars on – which can be annoying. Of course, you could just spend a fiver on a map.
We got off the train in Saint Peray, a small town on the bank of the Rhone opposite Valance, notable for producing a fizzy white wine which bears its name. It’s tasty stuff and I suggested we start the trip in style by drinking some. It was about 10am but that doesn’t bother the French, so we entered a bar, ordered a bottle and were told they didn’t serve it. Neither did the next place, nor the next. We inquired why none of the bars in Saint Peray served the one and only thing Saint Peray is famous for (Saint Peray) but the barman just shrugged frenchishly so we sank a couple of beers and left.
For lunch we stopped off in some uncharming little dump which only had two restaurants. At first glance neither looked great, so we chose the pizzeria because we were standing right outside it. We sat down, ordered a beer and set about regretting our choice more every second. Everything about the place felt wrong. The food was wrong (the daily special: lasagne, in the middle of a heatwave), the tables were grimy and sticky, and so were the patrons, and the staff. The first lunch of the trip was shaping up to be a dispiriting shitfest.
So before ordering I went and checked out the one other restaurant properly, just in case. You should always do this because it was excellent.
After a fantastic lunch we were cycling along next to the river when James started to overheat despite it only being a balmy 35°C. James has chilly Scottish blood and can’t deal with proper weather so spotting a little metal bridge over to a shady road, he decided we should cross it. Unbeknownst to us it was a Bridge of Evil under which lived multitudinous maleficent insects that looked like skinny wasps. They took umbrage at us crossing the Bridge of their Dark Overlord and expressed their anger by rising up in swarms and stinging the fuck quite literally out of us.
James went first and was about half way across when he shouted OW FUCK and sort of ran/stumbled the rest of the way pushing his loaded bike. It looked comical and I was halfway through saying “hahahaha what the fuck’s wrong with you you big pussy?” when I got stung and shouted OW FUCK and sort of ran/stumbled the rest of the way, stubbing my toe on the way. It really fucking hurt, each sting felt like someone putting a cigarette out on your skin.
Half an hour later, miles from anywhere, under a searingly hot sun, James rode over a huge evil looking thorn and got a flat. Resisting the notion that some malevolent supreme authority was fucking with us for not believing in him we chirpily said no big deal, just pop on a new inner tube and off we go, after all no one ever sets off on a bike tour without a couple of spare inner tubes do they?
Jimmy patched up the hole as best he could with a little repair kit he’d brought along by accident and we hobbled, stopping every 15 seconds to pump the tire up again until we arrived in Montelimar, changed the inner tube and set about looking for an apero and a decent meal.
The main drag was lined with typical French brasseries that all looked the same and were full of French tourists. We chose one at random, Le Rallye, a big busy factory of the sort that doesn’t care if you never come back because there are hundreds of other rubes queuing up behind you for a table. I ordered steak frites hoping (vainly as it turned out) that they would have just enough professional pride not to fuck up France’s national dish. It was terrible, so was the wine, so was the service.
We camped in a little wood near a little village whose only bar was shut and that night it rained. And the thing is I have only fond memories of that day.
We awoke to a perfect Provencal morning and took breakfast on the square of a small town whose name I can’t remember.
A word on breakfast in France. It’s usually coffee accompanied by croissant or pain au chocolat or possibly a brioche. The food is always delicious, properly “mmmmmmmmmm oh God that’s so fucking delicious” delicious: flaky buttery slightly salty baked to perfection delicious. And the coffee always looks and tastes like the person who made it just shat in the cup and added hot water. It’s one of the mysteries of the universe that the French, whose culture is built on gastronomy and who only enjoy the finer things in life, can take a delicious life-giving product like coffee and turn it into a burnt, bitter, astringent vile brew. And they don’t see a problem – they actually seem to enjoy it.
Then we knowingly, wilfully, set off up a 400 meter hill. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I was still on my trusty 8 speed urban hybrid and by the time I got to the top I had thought many things, most of them unprintable, but number one was “oh fuck this, I’ve got to get a proper bike”.
I can’t remember much about the rest of the day, and no one did much photographing so there’s nothing to jog my memory, but I do know that we arrived – bang on apero’clock – into the charming little town of Beaumes-de-Venise, a great place which gives its name to a Cotes du Rhone Cru, and a very delicious muscat (sweet wine).
After a swim and a shower in the municipal pool we sat down to a protracted apero, made most enjoyable by an amusing kerfuffle caused by a people-carrier full of grown men in boy scout uniforms who had somehow contrived to tear the sliding door off their vehicle whilst backing out of a parking place. They had done this by scraping down the side of a pretty local girl’s car so the stage was set for a full half hour’s entertainment involving all sorts of locals shouting, gesticulating, arguing, ordering more Pastis and accomplishing absolutely nothing. In the end the man-scouts managed to get the whole door into the people carrier and set off home, which in their case was Paris, about 7 hours’ drive on the motorway. That must have been a fun trip.
Someone at the swimming pool had mentioned that we should come back later on for a party so after dinner we headed down. It was huge fun, in the slightly crappy way that small French town fêtes usually are. There was a band doing passable covers of 80s hits and a big tent selling cold rosé for pennies, and the whole town had turned out. We got very drunk indeed, danced like loons to songs we hadn’t heard for years (like this: http://youtu.be/eYYotVPXcFE) and – despite being in our mid 40s – were hit on by young local maidens who were clearly on a quest to widen the town’s gene pool at any cost.
I’m happily married even when drunk, but James was at the time a full-on bachelor and almost disappeared into the undergrowth with some wasted young damsel. I can’t remember why he didn’t, but at 3 in the morning we wove our way up to one of the most spectacular places I have ever camped.
Here’s the view that greeted us the next morning.
This what I felt like.
I literally cannot remember anything else about day three except a beer on a terrace that was a road with cars on it, and that when we got where we were going it turned out to be a beautiful great big house with an amazing swimming pool. The End.