Four or five day bike trips are all very well, but ever since I got into this touring malarkey and started lurking on various forums and subreddits, I’ve been dreaming of The Big One.
So in 2018, the year I turned 50, I used this nominally momentous event as leverage to coerce my family and colleagues to allow me abdicate all responsibilities and disappear for a month on my bicycle.
As luck would have it, James, one of the regular characters to pop up on this blog, was taking a midlife crisis sabbatical and was similarly motivated to try a longer ride. And various other friends reckoned they’d join us for bits of the ride. This was welcome news because as far as I’m concerned bike touring is a social activity and I don’t really see the point of doing it on your own.
So on May 26th 2018 at 10.30 in morning I met up with my two brothers-in-law in a small village outside Geneva. We packed up our bikes, made all our final preparations and said all our goodbyes, then leaned our bikes up against a wall and meandered up into the village where a wine festival was getting underway. We sank a bottle of delicious local white wine, snarfed down a delicious Swiss sausage, then got into the saddle and got going.
It’s a strange thing setting off on a long trip. I had been looking forwards to that moment for months, but when it came it felt very similar to not setting off on a long trip. As hard as I tried to soak in the moment, what it actually felt like was I had just got on my bike and was going somewhere. I might as well have been nipping down the shops for a
buttplug pint of milk.
We were heading southwest towards Annecy which meant the very first thing that happened was a 900 metre climb up small and vertical roads. It was very very hot and it didn’t take too long before thoughts of the why the fuck am I doing this sort started, but then we reached the top, sank a beer in a little cafe with a view of a traffic jam, and then it was a downhill cruise into Annecy where we went into a posh deli and Cyrill (the bald one in the photos) bought all the food and most of the wine which we guzzled in a park by the lake.
A flat, easy afternoon on a cycle path took us round the lake to the literally named Le Bout du Lac where we checked into a campsite, ordered steak and wine and settled in to watch Liverpool vs Real Madrid in the Champions League final. I almost fell off my chair laughing when poor Loris Karius stopped functioning properly twice in a row and Liverpool lost. I am not a Liverpool fan.
All in all a great first day.
The plan was to head down to Grenoble, then round to Valance, joining the Via Rhona which would take us down to Avignon where we’d be joined by a few friends. But first the plan was to accompany Cyrill to a magical place called Le Bouvret du Lac which has 5 Michelin starred restaurants and which we have been to before. We’d eat a fabulous lunch, after which Cyrill would catch the train home to Geneva.
The next morning we set off reasonably early, early enough that by 10.37 we’d covered 20 km to Albertville and Giles – claiming it was “almost 11 o’clock” – insisted we stop for a pre-lunch drink. We did, and some fucker stole my brand new cycling gloves. I was extremely irritated by it then, and I am still irritated by it as I write this, 6 months later. Maybe one day I can stop being irritated, but it will cost hundreds of pounds in therapy, and the gloves only cost £40 so I’ll probably never be bothered with therapy and it will irritate me for the rest of my life. It may even be the last thing I think about before I die.
On the way out of Albertville Google maps wanted us to cross a bridge, but it was closed. A nice man standing outside his cafe told us to ignore the signs and cross the bridge anyway so we did, but it looked like it had been post-produced into a zombie apocalypse movie and it was unnerving. On reaching the other side we got bitched at by a stupid hag who had nothing better to do with her Sunday morning than hang around near a destroyed bridge bitching at cyclists and threatening to call the cops.
Lunch was another picnic eaten next to a mosquito infested but otherwise picturesque little lake where for the first time I tested out a new kit addition: a folding chair. I’d thought longer and harder than usual about this acquisition, a Helinox Chair One. It is expensive, weighs only slightly less than a lightweight tent and is about the same size. And it’s arguably unnecessary because the ground is always available to sit on. I rationalized it thus: I’m 50 and I’m riding 80 km a day, fuck this sitting on the ground shit. A compelling argument you’ll agree, nonetheless I was slightly apprehensive that I’d wasted £80 when I clicked it together for the first time. But as I sank into its comfortable mesh and supped ‘pon a glass of red wine I knew without any doubt that this bit of kit was a game changer.
Food and comfort now front of mind I suggested to Giles he reserve a table at one of the Michelin starred restaurants for that evening but it turned out they were all shut. Sunday in France innit. So that afternoon we headed towards Chambery where Cyrill could catch a train home, ran into the most almighty rain storm 5 km outside of town, and arrived drenched to the core. After rebooting with dry clothes and a few glasses of red Cyrill left us and we pitched camp in a car park on the edge of town next to a little river with a bench on which we sat and smoked cigars and drank wine.
Next day started fine, but by the afternoon it was alternating between torrential showers and sunshine, and this set the pattern for the next few days. We spent a lot of time standing under bridges and drinking booze in shitty little cafes in dead villages in the arse-end of rural France, and that evening, arriving into Grenoble in the pissing rain we decided to fuck camping, checked into the inaccurately named Splendid Hotel, then went and had one of the best meals of the entire trip in a Lebanese restaurant.
For the next three days we wended our way alongside rivers, over hills and through rain, checking into campsites for the night and then sleeping on the porches of unoccupied fixed bungalow / caravan things they all have these days.
One (not very) memorable afternoon saw us finish an enormous boozy lunch in the sun in Romans and set off only for it to immediately piss with rain. I found an open shop, no easy task at lunchtime in France, bought 2 bottles of wine and a pack of fags and we sat and got merrily (more) pissed for two hours watching the rain.
By the time we got to Valance I was feeling distinctly unwell, the result (according to me, with a bit of prompting from Google) of a week’s assault of cheese and booze on my gut flora. So that night I did the obvious thing: went and ate an enormous pizza covered in a mind boggling quantity of cheese. And drank a bottle of wine. Kill or cure I thought. Well it was kill. It fucking finished me and I felt awful for the next couple of days.
The next morning Giles mounted his “bike” (actually a rowing machine on wheels) and swore. Some vital piece had broken, and because the thing is pretty much hand built from scratch in Amsterdam there was no way he would be able to find a spare part and continue the trip. Bummed out we limped to Valance station where he got on a train back to Geneva. I continued south, and literally 20 minutes later had clear sunny blue skies for the first time in a week. The rain, not altogether unsurprisingly, had been Giles’ fault. Annoying things usually are.
Also Giles’ fault (because he’d forced me to drink too much wine and eat too much cheese, the bastard) was the fact that I felt like shit, despite the weather and perfect cycling conditions. In fact that afternoon was the only time during the entire trip when I’d happily have packed it all in. I felt weak, ill and pissed off, and I couldn’t just lie down under a tree and sleep it off because I had 40 km to where I was meeting Dr. Paul who’d come out from London to join me.
I finally made it to Viviers where he was waiting. I felt bad that instead of the two happy cyclists he was meant to be meeting, only one had showed up and that one was ruined and no fun at all. It was a quiet night.
The next day was hot and sunny and I felt much better. we cycled down the Rhone then off into the hills of Provence to Chateauneuf du Pape where we stopped for a very expensive and very delicious glass of the wine of the new castle of the pope.
The campsite was full of men of a certain age (our age as it happens) all with BMW RS1200s and expensive ancillary kit having a meet up. They looked like they should be meeting up somewhere outside Nouakchott, but they were having a good time and they’d organised a band and good food so bless ’em.
And the next day we rode the short distance to Avignon and met up with James and David.
Next: Avignon to Toulon