Thursday, 27 June 2013

Bringing life to the kingdom of doing

The driven and the fortunate end up doing jobs that they love; that reward them emotionally and financially, if they're lucky. The rest of us sometimes have to pick between the two, sometimes we don't get either. I've had brief moments in the last 25 years when the two have come together, and for the rest of the time, I've at least earned enough money to not have to worry about the bills too much.

But on Tuesday morning this week, I had a vision of the fantasy job that I'd do if it existed or I had the cojones to try to invent it - a cycling historian. I'd lead bike tours from Caen in Normandy round the coast to St. Malo in Brittany, recounting the history of the landing beaches, bringing the events of 1944 alive for whoever was interested in them, but wanted to experience more than just read a book or spend an hour out of their air-conditioned car at a war grave site or a museum. The anointed among us already know that bicycling is God's own method of transport - slow enough to take in sights, sounds, smells and other people's conversations, fast enough to alleviate boredom. So doing that whilst giving a mobile history lesson in what happened 69 years ago (and in the months before and after), and its consequences for how we live now and why the world is arranged as it is, strikes me as an ideal way of earning a living.

But let's rewind a bit. I'd arrived 'home' in Ploeuc-sur-Lie a week last Monday with a bad hand and a miserable head. I moped around for a day or so, wondering what to do and how to make the best of my time in France, and whether I'd need to get any medical attention. Fortunately, the swelling round the knuckles began to go down a bit, and I got a bit of movement back in my fingers. The revised plan evolved into staying at the house till the end of the following weekend (i.e. the one just gone), doing house jobs - for there is always something that needs painting / mending / cleaning / mowing - and riding the bike as much as possible around that, until Monday morning, when I'd take a two day route back to St. Malo via Avranches and Mont St. Michel.

(Unbelievably, given my love of the Tour de France, when I made that plan, I'd forgotten that this year's route makes its way from Nantes to St Malo on Tuesday 9th July, and there's a 'contre le montre' [time trial], from Avranches to Mont St. Michel the following day. Which meant that I spent Monday and Tuesday this week riding large parts of the exact routes of those two days completely fortuitously and inadvertently).

Living at the house for six days without a car was quite interesting, given that we're two miles from the village itself and much further to anywhere of note. It gave me a real insight into what it would be like to live car-less. You can do it - when a) you've not got a job and therefore have plenty of time, b) can rely on delivery services for anything bigger than will fit on or be towed by a bike, and c) it's never winter. I've uploaded pictures to Facebook of shopping and recycling with a bike, and I even did a 45 mile round trip to buy a 5 kg bag of cement I needed for some work outside the house. No pictures of that one, which is a shame, as 5 kg of bulk in one pannier and 0 kg in the other is enough to unbalance the bike, and means you end up riding whilst leaning slightly to provide some counter-balance.

Anyway, Monday morning rolled around and I rolled away from Ploeuc north-east towards Avranches. As is impossible not to do in France I passed through countless meticulously-maintained villages and hamlets, took pictures of a fraction of the number of mightily impressive churches I saw (which all seem to be disproportionately large for the size of place in which they're situated; those with a better knowledge than me of the Catholic church and its role in French life could undoubtedly tell me why that is), and lunched more-or-less at the spot in Evran where there will be the intermediate sprint on Stage 10 of this year's Tour. The route was deliberately meandering, meaning I'd covered 95 miles by the time I rolled into the F1 hotel at Avranches.

Now, I don't know how many of you have stayed in a F1 in France. If you haven't, then to give you an idea of what they're like, they make Travelodges feel like the Ritz. There's no en suite (you pad down the corridor to shared facilities), you get a towel marginally bigger than a postage stamp, and there's no reception - it's all automated. Which at least means there's nobody to moan at you for taking your bike to your room. I'm not complaining about any of this - the rooms are clean, cheap (I paid 31€), and after a tent, unbelievably luxurious.

So, Monday was good. Tuesday was better, but I'll come to that. For all the virtues of rural France, it's not without its parochialism. As I was buying my lunchtime provisions on Monday a Frenchman struck up a conversation with me about what I was doing, where I'd come from, and so on. When he asked me about my starting point that day I chose not to say the village name, as I was 40 miles away by then. So I said "Moncontour", the next town of any size. Nope, he'd not heard of that. Nor had he heard of Lamballe, from where you can pick up TGVs to Paris. To put this in context for my local readers, it's like being in Chester and a native there not having heard of Wilmslow. Unbelievable. Still, the gentlemen in question (in his 70s) was wearing a white golfing cap, a shiny blue three-quarter length shellsuit, topped off (bottomed off?) with white sports socks and black brogues, so perhaps I shouldn't be altogether surprised. There you go, look-ist and age-ist in a single sentence.

Tuesday didn't start auspiciously - for the first time in my cycling career I had a spoke problem, a very loose one on the verge of snapping to be specific. As good fortune would have it, I was only a mile or so from a Decathlon store, so I popped in there to get it tightened, and I was soon on my way, hugging the coast road all the way from Avranches to St Malo. In a straight line, it's only 35 miles or so, but I extended that to 65 by going down the tiniest roads I could find, the only criterion for selection being it had to be the one closest to the shoreline. And what a shoreline - the bay of Mont St. Michel is glorious, though I suspect nearing its best on a sunny June weekday morning when there aren't too many other people around. The Mont itself is France's second most popular tourist destination after the Eiffel Tower, but as long as you create your own Tourist Exclusion Zone by riding down the back roads near it, you can avoid the worst excesses of the peculiar culture that seems to accompany anywhere that attracts large numbers of camera-equipped Japanese and Americans. Again, see my Facebook page for pics.

I lunched in Pontorson, mid-afternooned in Cancale overlooking the oyster farms, and arrived in St Malo early evening. One of the great things about being on a bike rather than in a car means they seem to let you on ferries first, meaning that by the time the great unwashed were boarding on Tuesday, not only was I washed (showered actually; public showers on a ferry - how civilised), but I was also changed, seated and with beer.  As ever, both in the ferry queue with fellow cyclists, and on the boat with everyone else, obviously being a touring cyclist attracts conversation and comments, possibly more so when you're travelling alone. It was fun; time passed quickly and before I knew it I was back among the lovely British, with their aggression, their cramped space and their b*****d London buses. But it would be a shame to finish on a negative, so I won't, because...

....Eight days at home, then I'm off again to France, the Pyrenees in fact, as I think I may have mentioned once or twice before now......



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