In April 2014 James bought himself a flash new bike: a very nice looking Trek Crossrip.
He was giddy with excitement and desperate to take it on a proper ride so in May we set off south in search of early summer sun.
I jokingly invited an old friend by the name of Danny along, and astonishingly he said yes, this despite being voted The Person Least Likely to Ever Go Fucking About on a Stupid Bike 14 years in a row.
And thus it happened that very early one Thursday morning the three of us jumped on a train in Geneva, cracked a breakfast bottle of champagne and headed to Grenoble.
It was important for Danny to enjoy his first day of bike touring so James and I had painstakingly planned a nice easy 82 km route from Grenoble to Romans with as few hills as possible, and after a delightful morning riding a very flat Voie Verte along the river and an entirely acceptable lunch at Le Diable au Tyme in L’Albenc (washed down with inappropriately named wine) we were all feeling pretty good about life.
Then, somewhere around Vinay, the world turned into an enormous hill that only went upwards and it stayed that way for the rest of afternoon. We pedalled and sweated and cursed for hours, but our destination and its promise of food, booze and rest got no closer.
Around 5 o’clock we stopped for a beer, thinking we must be at most 5 km from our destination, only to find out we were more like 25 km away up more fucking hills. We never figured out what exactly had gone so wrong, but the upshot was that on Danny’s first day we cycled almost 110 km mainly uphill.
It wasn’t awful exactly, the weather was great and there were bars to drink in and most scenic scenery to look at along the way, but by the time we arrived in Romans we were in pieces.
I thought Danny was going to get on the first train back to Geneva and leave us to it, but he’s made mainly of concrete and actually he was the least beaten up of the three of us. And we managed to eat well and find a gorgeous place to sleep, so by the next morning were fully re-equipped with functioning legs and a sense of humour.
The next morning the sun was out and after a typically delicious breakfast with typically awful coffee we hit the road with a 35 kph wind in our backs. Flying through picturesque (and mainly flat) countryside at 25 kph with minimal effort, I could tell that Danny was starting to see the point.
Lunch, on the terrace of a charming little restaurant called Le Vieux Four in l’Etoile Sur Rhone made things even better: good food and cold rose served with a smile and a Provençal accent.
A pleasant hour or so after lunch we hit the Bitch (aka the Rhone). I have cycled along parts of the Rhone three times now and I love it, but there is no denying it’s a bitch. Actually it’s The Bitch. Not because it’s hard work, far from it in fact, if you’re heading south it’s a piece of piss because you’ve usually got the Mistral in your back.
No it’s the Bitch because it’s huge, flat, industrial, impassive and sinister, and it can kill you in a heartbeat as many signs delight in pointing out.
Either chance or some more sinister force contrived to have us join the river at the very spot where 2 years earlier James and I had attempted to cross a Bridge of Evil and been ambushed by vicious fiends disguised as insects who rose up to kill us and steal our souls (you can read all about it here).
This was not a good sign. Something bad was about to happen and if history teaches us anything it would probably involve someone getting a flat back tire.
Me, as it turned out. Riding down a very rocky stretch of path the words “I’m amazed my tires are dealing with this shit so well” had just escaped my idiot lips when my rear wheel hit a huge rock and the inner tube exploded. But that was the worst thing that happened that afternoon and by about 5 pm after a nice easy 70 km day’s ride we reached a camp-site that James had cunningly spotted on the internet.
Not that we were going to camp there, don’t be daft, but in May your washing options are limited and friendly camp-sites are as good as it gets. We spent a very happy couple of hours washing, changing, lounging and drinking cold beers and cold pastis and cold rosé before it was time to head over to a great looking restaurant about 8 km away that I had cunningly spotted on the internet.
That last 8 km was a bastard. Uphill and into the wind. Danny was pretty pissed off by the time we arrived in the tiny village of St Marcel les Sauzet, and not at all impressed by the fact that we intended to camp another couple of kilometres out of town up a hill. Scared by his ill concealed disgruntlement (he’s a big man), James and I looked around and found a perfect spot just across the car park from the restaurant. This made us absurdly happy, which sort of sums up the whole wild camping thing as far as I’m concerned.
The restaurant was a score as well. Danny and I ate sweetbreads and kidneys in a morels sauce and it was god-damned delicious. Many many hours later we stumbled out, pitched our tents and collapsed into the sleep of the pissed, stuffed and knackered.
In a cute little Provençal town on a hill at 10 am the next morning I found myself alone, feeding my caffeine habit inside a dingy shithole of a café, listening to a couple of old pissheads boozing and moaning about the fact that the local police had expelled all the hookers to new locations out of town. Apparently, and despite only having a population large enough to sustain one very crappy café, the place had once sustained several brothels.
“Oh well, at least it’s easier to park at the new ones” mused one of the wrecked old fucks. “Yeah, and these new Brazilian prostitutes are great” said the other, “but you have to inspect the goods before you buy…” Hilarity ensued.
It had never really occurred to me that hookers have to screw filthy old wasters like that pair and pretend to enjoy it. I left with a new-found respect for the oldest profession and heartfelt gratitude that I’m not a practitioner of it.
It was already sunny and hot when we hit the road, once again with the wind in our backs, and the morning ride was easy and extremely pleasant, punctuated by cold beers on a warm terrace and ending in the town square in Viviers, in a bog standard restaurant with a very hung over waiter.
One top notch salad de chevre chaud and a perfectly balanced combination of beer, pastis and rose later and we hit the road, and the Rhone, again. The afternoon was great: sunny, flat and lazy and the Rhone behaved itself and didn’t try to kill us.
Around 4 o’clock we turned left at Bollene and headed inland to find somewhere to eat and kip. With only another 10 km or so to go I was as happy as a pig in a pile of shit as we rode through vines and forests of pin parasol. Danny and James, though, were hot and tired and sick of it all. When we finally arrived in the tiny town of Suze la Rousse James reinvigorated his Scottish blood by bathing in an extremely cold river. Danny, sensibly, opted to have a meltdown instead.
It is a perfectly permissible to have a meltdown at some point on your first bike trip, and in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a biggie. James’ meltdown on his first trip involved sleeping in a hotel and then going home by train. Danny’s just consisted of wanting to sleep in a camp-site with showers instead of camping wild. James and I pretended to be sympathetic and set about feeding him enough booze that he’d forget who he was and what he was thinking and stop fussing.
It totally worked, plus we found a great place to sleep that night in a little clearing next to a strange little chapel in a wood on top of a hill next to a big sign that said “No Camping”. We didn’t tell Danny about the big no camping sign.
It was a fun night. We ate in the only café in town that wasn’t either closed or full. It was pretty ordinary, but the owners’ 16 year old son was the friendliest waiter in the world so we stuck around and ordered more wine and chatted. His dream was to leave his little home town and seek fame and fortune in Canada. Luckily I was able to warn him that Canada is a dangerous dump where it’s impossible to get a job and the people are all loony bastards. I know all this because my cousins live there. Sure, none of any of what I told him is actually true, but you should never miss an opportunity to piss all over someone’s dreams, especially if they’re young and naïve. I did feel pretty guilty about it in the morning.
When the place finally closed we were thoroughly shitfaced and in his infinite wisdom the lad gave us a free bottle of wine to take with us, no doubt out of gratitude for warning him about Canada. It was a beautiful night so we went and sat outside the little chapel and polished the wine off, just to make absolutely sure.
We had been told – wrongly as it turned out – that we were further away from Avignon than we thought we were, and keen to have a nice last lunch before catching the train home, we set our alarms ridiculously early (7.45 am!), got up feeling surprisingly un-hungover, and set off to make time. Then James’ head fell off.
I’m generally no big fan of getting up early but riding along empty roads on a sunny Sunday morning in May has much to recommend it. Breakfast was taken on the warm terrace of very cool bar / restaurant in the next town (less than 5 km away) where there had evidently, and rather irritatingly since we’d missed it, been a huge party the previous night.
The next 30 km or so were some of the best I have ever ridden, winding through Provence with magical light and dry herby smells. It felt like summer (which at the end of May is pure luxury for a Londoner) and the incredible views just kept coming, except at one point when we accidentally ended up wading through a swamp outside a military airbase.
It all ended at a town called Sorgues where we stopped for a pre-lunch beer. At first glance it looked like a typical southern French town. The Sunday market was in full swing and the place was rammed. On closer inspection though was a strange place, full of aggressive young men, rude old fuckers and fat stupid children stuffing their faces with fried chicken. The barman refused to fill our water bottles which may not sound like a big deal but it’s unheard of in France where cyclists are celebrated like members of the French resistance (despite there being a lot more cyclists). We drank up and got the fuck out.
The outskirts of Avignon went on for ages and were a pain in the arse, figuratively and literally. It’s one of the laws of bike touring that the point at which the ride is pretty much over and now you’re just trying to get to the end is also the point at which the pain in your backside goes from barely noticeable to tiresome. Basically it’s no longer worth putting up with so your brain stops bothering to.
The centre of Avignon was worth it though, and the venue for a truly fantastic lunch, bien arrosé de rosé.
And that was that. Danny forced us to upgrade to 1st class on the train back to Geneva, and despite being a pikey who dislikes spending money on fripperies like comfortable travel I’ve got to admit it was a good call.