Going a bit stir-crazy durum the Corona Lockdown? I sure am. And it looks like my annual, fall biking trip to France (the Riviera? Sarlat to Avignon/Nimes?) is cancelled. Oh well. It’s hard to be upset or feel sorry for myself when so many people are getting sick and dying.
So, to kill some time and plant some positive thoughts in my mind, and hopefully yours, and remind myself there’s still a lot of beauty out there in the world, it’s time to take a trip down memory lane. Here’s the story of my first-ever French bike trip, the amazing Loire River Valley. All the way back in 1985. Yep, 35 years ago. How is that possible?
OK, here we go; I hope this fills your void for the next several minutes…
June 1985: I was an aviation writer, in Paris, to cover the Paris Air Show. It’s the world’s largest air show and is held every other year at Le Bourget Airport, which is where Charles Lindbergh landed in 1927 on his historic trans-Atlantic flight. This was my third consecutive Paris Air Show. After the previous two, I spent a couple weeks visiting major European cities, by train, followed by a six-month European tour (by train) in 1984 that was financed by my freelance aviation writing.
My aviation specialty: helicopters. Really, it was helicopters.
It was extremely hot and hectic at the 1985 Paris Air Show. And, no, I don’t expect any sympathy. It’s hard to make an overseas assignment, in Paris no less, sound anything but amazing. Nevertheless …
“Enough!” I told myself when the air show was over. Enough of the big, crowded cities, enough of the long lines and annoying tourists at museums, all jockeying for position to see another Monet or Van Gogh painting. I want to see the famous French countryside that inspired these legendary Impressionists. What would you rather see: A painting of a field of sunflowers or an actual field of sunflowers?
I consulted my Let’s Go France travel book (yes, we used travel books back then, actual books made of paper that we carried with us) and decided on Blois in the nearby Loire River Valley. I had come to depend on Let’s Go during the past few years of European travels to help me decide where to go, what to see, where to stay and eat. On the cover it claims to be the Bible of the Budget Traveler and is written by specially selected Harvard students. Plus, the New York Times called it “invaluable.”
Who am I to argue with the New York Times? I’m not Donald Trump.
Then again, invaluable makes it sound as though it isn’t very valuable. Shouldn’t the New York Times have called it “a really valuable” book? But, like I said, who am I to argue with the New York Times?
FYI: A few years later, I did some freelance sports writing for the New York Times. It was an invaluable experience.
Back to Paris, 1985, and my Let’s Go France book. I read about the town of Blois, which is located on the banks of the Loire, has a chateau, which I was pretty sure was the French word for castle, and was once “home to French monarchs Louis XII and Francois I in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.” Unfortunately, there was nothing in the book about how to pronounce Blois, which would have come in really handy.
I also read the following in my Let’s Go: “Unquestionably the best way to see this fecund valley is by bike. Distances are relatively short, and the terrain is flat and lush.” That sold it for me: I was going to get a bike when I got to Blois. My Let’s Go even listed a place to rent one: Atelier Cycles.
The only problem was, I had no idea what the word fecund meant. Never heard it uttered, never read it in a magazine or book until I read it in my Let’s Go. Is it a French word? English? Italian? Has to be a good thing, right? Some sort of compliment. Scenic? Historic? Damn those genius Harvard students and their superior vocabulary.
What the hell, whatever it meant, I was going to bike around the fecund Loire.
I slowly made my way to the front of the long line at the ticket counter at the train station in Paris.
Me (very politely): “Bonjour, parlez-vous Anglais?”
Ticket Counter Guy: “A little.”
Me: “Un billet (that’s French for ticket) pour Blois, s’il vous plait. Avec return.”
I took a wild guess and pronounced it Blue-oz.
Ticket Counter Guy (in a tone I found more than a little condescending): “I do not understand.”
Ticket Counter Guy (in an even more condescending manner … and no one, except maybe French café waiters, can do condescending better than French civil servants): “I do not understand.”
Me: “Blue … blues … blows … bloss … blahs … blue-ah … blue ass?”
Blue ass, by the way, was the mood I was now entering. Actually, flaming-blue ass. One of the least-known but most dangerous Marvel super heroes.
Ticket Counter Guy: “I do not understand … go to the information window.”
And then he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
Now trust me, I’m not that American tourist. I’m respectful of the local culture and customs, don’t expect people to speak English, appreciate it when they do, and always learn a few words of the local language. Especially how to say “do you speak English” and “how much?”
But this, a condescending wave from Ticket Counter Guy … No way!
Me (talking slowly, calmly, yet forcefully, like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry): “Give … me … your … pen … s’il vous plait.”
Ticket Counter Guy eyed me up and down; I stared back. I wasn’t moving; I wasn’t backing down; I wasn’t going over to the information window and waiting in another long line.
It was a standoff.
Finally, with a look that seemed to say, “these Americans are such barbarians,” Ticket Counter Guy sighed, shook his head from side to side and slid a pen through the little opening at the bottom of the window.
I wrote “Blois” on a piece of paper and held it up to the window.
Ticket Counter Guy: Ah, oui, Bl…
He said it with a such a big mouthful of smug and so damn fast I still had no idea how pronounce the name of the home of Louis and Francois.
Me: “Whatever … un billet, avec return.”
Ticket Counter Guy: “This is 147 francs (this was back in the days before the Euro, and there were anywhere from five to almost six francs to the dollar, depending on the day of the week).”
I had a 100-franc and a 50-franc bill in my pocket. That wouldn’t have been any fun. Instead, I dug through my wallet and pulled out my one-and-only, and very precious 500-franc note. One of the things I had already learned about France and the French is they have a pathological hatred of changing large bills. Why? I have no idea. But they do. With a passion. Maybe it has something to do with World War II. Everything over here seems to have something to do with World War II.
Ticket Counter Guy glared at the 500-franc bill for several seconds as if it had dog poop on it (which, BTW, is everywhere on the streets of Paris, so, watch your step and maybe wash your money). Finally, and with another impressive sigh, he pulled the 500-franc bill through the window … and gave me my ticket and change.
I turned to walk away, toward my train – and kept his stinkin’ pen.
That’ll teach him not to mess with … actually, I doubt it will teach him anything or even if there was a lesson for either one of us to have learned, other than the fact that Blois is hard for Americans to pronounce. Actually, come to think of it, I did learn a valuable lesson: Whenever buying a train ticket in a foreign land, always bring a pen and a piece of paper. You never know.
FYI (1): All of the above is true, although I may have exaggerated a bit.
FYI (2): All these years later, I still don’t know how to pronounce Blois, and I’ve been back, by train, a few times. No problem. You can buy tickets online or at a kiosk in the train station and don’t have to deal with Ticket Counter Guys. I guess the internet and kiosks have put a lot of Ticket Counter Guys out of work, which is a bad thing. I feel sorry for them. Well, most of them.
After arriving in Blois and polishing off a croissant and a pan au chocolat, two of the greatest foods ever invented and the French versions of energy bars, I went off in search of Atelier Cycles. Found it. It was filled with sleek racing bikes, like the one the guys in the Tour de France ride, and sturdy mountain bikes, like the ones the guys who race down mountains on bikes ride. At the back of the shop, working on a bike, and wearing a yellow, one-piece mechanic’s suit that made him look like a giant banana, was Monsieur Atelier.
At least I think it was Monsieur Atelier. It had to be Monsieur Atelier.
Monsieur Atelier: “Bonjour.”
Me: “Parlez-vous Anglais?”
Monsieur Atelier (in a very pleasant and non-condescending manner): “Non.”
Followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand. Who knows, I may have been the first American to ever rent a bike from Atelier Cycles. Remember, this was 1985. I was a bit of a pioneer.
Using sign language, smiles and my limited French vocabulary, and finally getting it through my thick, American skull that the word “velo” means bicycle, after Monsieur Atelier kept pointing at bicycles and saying “velo,” I was able to explain to him that I wanted to rent a bike … I mean a velo. And no, not a mountain velo; I wanted a Tour de France velo, one with the ram’s-horn handlebars and thin tires. Like the Schwinn Continental I had ridden in high school.
Monsieur Atelier: “Ah, oui …”
Followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.
He picked out a yellow road bike that matched his outfit and had “Atelier Cycles” written on the top tube. I’m pretty sure yellow was his favorite color. For all I know, he could have been a former professional rider who once wore the famous yellow jersey of the race leader of the Tour de France.
The bike seemed perfect, and even had a rack on the back onto which I could strap my knapsack with the bungee cord already wrapped around the rack. How I’d carry my stuff on the bike wasn’t something I had thought about until that very moment.
I was such a cycling novice.
Monsieur Atelier began pointing at various parts of the yellow bike, talking faster and faster. And I kept nodding, faster and faster, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. He then took a bunch of stuff out of a little pouch hanging under the seat and started explaining and demonstrating what to do with all the little tools inside. He even pantomimed a demonstration of how to fix a flat tire, something else I hadn’t considered.
A flat tire?
Holy crap, that would totally suck, as I had no idea how to fix a flat, and no idea what Monsieur Atelier was saying about how to fix a flat tire with the tools in the little pouch under the seat.
I was such a cycling novice back then.
Finally, Monsieur Atelier wheeled it out of the shop and onto the street. I hopped on, ready to start pedaling my way through the fecund Loire Valley.
Or so I thought…
I’d never before ridden a bike with straps on the pedals (also called cages, or sometimes rat traps), and hadn’t ridden any sort of bike in at least seven or eight years (I was 26 at the time). Did they even have straps on the pedals of bicycles in the United States back in 1985? I had no idea. And the thing of it was, it was something any and every 7-year-old French kid did with ease. I could get one foot into the strap while standing still, with the other foot on the ground. But then, no matter how hard I tried, and I tried really hard, I couldn’t manage to turn the pedal with the one foot and get my second foot into the strap. The more I tried, the more frustrated I got. My feet felt huge, like giant, uncoordinated clown feet and the pedal straps seemed to get smaller and smaller the more I tried to get my second foot into them.
On the third or fourth try, I fell … and went down like a sack of pomme de terres. I bounced back to my feet and managed a sheepish grin as Monsieur Atelier did his best to hold back the laughter. I appreciated that. My right hand – upon which I had just landed – was a little scratched up, but other than that I was fine, more embarrassed than hurt.
Finally, after a few more futile efforts, Monsieur Atelier motioned for me to get off the bike. He wheeled it back into the shop as I stood there, feeling like a complete and utter idiot.
“That’s just great,” I told myself. “He’s taking back my bike. He thinks I’m the biggest idiot in the world, too stupid to be trusted with his nice, yellow bike. Now what the hell am I going to do? You can’t go for a bike ride through the fecund Loire Valley without a bike. Can you? No, you idiot, you can’t. That’s called hiking.”
A few minutes later, Monsieur Atelier emerged from the shop with the bike … minus the pedal straps.
Monsieur Atelier: “Voila!”
Followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.
Me: “You’re a genius.”
Followed by a bunch of English words he didn’t understand.
I got on the bike, started pedaling, turned to wave goodbye to my new friend, wobbled and nearly lost my balance, but quickly righted myself, and pedaled off into the sunset. I think I saw Monsieur Atelier cross himself. Was his prayer for me – or for his bike?
Reading through my journal from the 1985 trip, I discovered my last day at the Paris Air Show was June 6 and that I didn’t immediately head to Blois. As I had remembered. Or misremembered, to be more precise. Instead, I stayed in Paris for a couple more days and eventually headed south, by train, to Nice, for about a week, then back to Paris. And arrived in Blois on June 20. The next day, June 21, I wrote in my journal: “Got up early and went to the bicycle place … got a bike for 35 francs a day.”
Here’s my description of that day’s ride, my first-ever French bike ride: “Went to Chambord, Chambord, Villesavin, Cheverny and Beauregard. Whew!!”
Yep, two exclamation points. And not much description. But hey, 35 miles. Not bad for a rookie. The next day, I wrote: “My ass is killing me, so I took it easy – only to Chaumont and back.” That’s about a 25-mile ride.
Chambord is this immense castle in the middle of nowhere. No town around or beneath it, no nothing. Just the castle surrounded by hundreds of acres of fields and forests. And several large parking lots, for all the cars and the invading army of tour buses. I approached the castle on my bike, turned off the paved road and into one of the parking lots, slid when I hit the gravel of the parking lot … and went down. In front of a few dozen tourists getting on or off one of the tour buses. Several of the tourists found my fall quite amusing.
I was such a cycling novice.
Again, I landed on my right hand. And this time a few pieces of gravel were embedded in my palm. Ah, this is why cyclists wear gloves.
As I’m discovering as I write this: Memories aren’t an exact science. Especially mine. I remembered my first French cycling trip being one continuous ride around the Loire. My journal told me otherwise. After those first two rides, from my home base of Blois, I returned my bike to Monsieur Atelier and took the train to nearby Amboise and got a hotel for two nights. On the second day, I took the train back to Blois, re-rented “my” yellow bike, minus the straps, and rode to Chenonceaux, the castle that goes across a river (the Cher), and then cycled back to Amboise. About 35 miles. Then on to Tours, Azay-le-Rideau and then all the way back to Blois in a single day, about 60 miles, by far the longest and most amazing ride of my life up to this point in time.
Here’s what I wrote about the castle at Villandry: “The gardens were incredible, perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve seen so far.” I’ve been back a few times, and 1985 Steve was right on the money about these gardens. Amazing.
Here’s what else I wrote: “I am really enjoying the riding and would love to keep going.”
After six days and maybe 200 miles, my ass was a nightmare (ah, so that’s why cyclists wear those fancy, tight spandex pants!), but I was totally and absolutely hooked on bike touring. The freedom, the wind in your face the sights and sounds, the challenge of mapping out a great route, and all the incredible sights along the way had me hooked. This was so much better than touring yet another large, crowded city and visiting one museum and tourist attraction after the next.
FYI: Eventually, I looked up fecund in the dictionary and: Full of flowers and plants and botanical stuff.