Susan’s France Photos (#1): The Bayeux Scary Guys!

It was 1993: Our honeymoon French bike trip … we pedal into the town of Bayeux in Normandy and…

Craziness!

We arrived in the middle of the town’s annual Medieval Festival. The streets were filled with all kinds of scary guys on stilts. And thousands of people. So Susan, who was very much into photography (especially B&W) back then, started shooting away.

And got this guy…

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Photo by Susan Cunningham

Here’s what I wrote in my journal on July 3, 1993: “There were all sorts of booths and everyone was in costume and then there were all these monsters on stilts who led a big show with firecrackers, gnomes, jugglers and fire breathers. It was supposed to symbolize the battle between good and evil.”

A gnome is a diminutive spirit in Renaissance magic and alchemy. Not sure when they were co-opted for gardens.

Here’s something else I wrote that day in my journal, and had completely forgotten all about: “Today we had a big fight. Susan got mad at me and then I got mad at her and things got worse. Of course, it was all my fault. It took all day, but we made up.”

I think all the Renaissance magic and alchemy helped end the fight. Not to mention the gnomes.

 

Hi-Tech Underwear: Making Bike Trips Easier!

pannier1Breakthrough advances in underwear technology are going to make my upcoming French bike trip so much easier. And lighter.

And then there’s my brand-new, stink-resistant T-shirts! They don’t smell, no matter how much I do (and you really do on a bike trip).

But first, before I get to all the amazing boxer-brief & T-shirt technology news: Only 17 days until I fly off to Paris. Then biking in Bordeaux and the beaches of Arcachon. Back to Paris to meet Susan, and on to Provence for more biking, and the climbing of Mount Ventoux on my birthday (October 2).

So, as you can imagine, I’m in the all-important packing-planning stage of my trip. The goal is to pack everything I’ll need into my two panniers.

Panniers?

The bags that attach to either side of the rack on the back of your bike and carry all your stuff. The heavier the load, the more weight you have to lug up the hills and mountains. So, packing light is vital. And these days, what with a lap top, iPhone and all the cables and chargers and adapters you need, it’s getting harder and harder.

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But my friends at Fruit of the Loom and Unbound Merino have come through for me.

The Loom’s new EverLight boxer briefs are “designed with fabric so light you forget you’re wearing them.” Ah, the accidental commando.  They’re 78 percent nylon and 22 percent spandex … and 100 percent comfortable.

The Loom’s marketing people are right: It doesn’t feel like you’re wearing underwear. To quote Cosmo Kramer: “It be so … and I’m lovin’ every minute of it.”

Of course, I wear bike shorts when I ride. I’ll bring two pairs and wash out the one I just wore every night in the sink (along with my bike jersey and gloves). I’ll bring seven, maybe even eight pairs of EverLights, as seven or eight pairs weighs as much as one or two pairs of the NeverLights I’ve always worn. I’ll only have to go to the Laundromat every seven or eight days. Hell, maybe I’ll bring nine pairs. They’re so darn light.

And, get this: I’m only bringing two T-Shirts. Two! I used to bring seven or eight.

How is this possible?

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This is how much stuff I used to have to bring

So, these new Merino wool T-shirts stay  “clean and fresh no matter what you put it through … You can wear an Unbound Merino T-shirt every single day for weeks on end. That means when packing for a trip, you can drastically cut down the amount of clothing you pack.”

I’ve tested them out: And they seem to work.

Me: “Susan, do I smell? Check out my pits. Don’t be scared. Get your nose in there and take a deep breath.”

Susan reluctantly (OK, very, very reluctantly) got in there and smelled my pits … and gave the thumbs up. They didn’t smell. Even the left one.

OK, I’m all set for underwear and T-shirts. If I can figure out a way to reduce my sock footprint, I’ll be so light I’ll fly up the damn mountains. Hell, I may even bring 10 pairs of EverLights. And, hey Fruit of the Loom people: I don’t appreciate you putting my body on the packaging. Where are my royalties?

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My Favorite Rides: The Gorges de la Nesque

This is the first in an on-going series of my all-time favorite rides.

There’s something about a gorge that’s just … well, what else can I say … gorgeous. Sorry to be so cliche-ish. I’m sure several of my former editors just cringed and thought: “Oh Steve, didn’t I teach you anything?”

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Here’s the Nesque view a couple of kilometers past Villes-sur-Auzon

It takes millions and millions of years for a gorge to form, as the water from the river (in this case, the Nesque River, hence the name of the gorge) carves away the rocks, and the cliffs get taller and taller. It reminds me of that episode of the Flintstones cartoon, yes, the Flintstones. How’s that for a long-ago reference? Fred and Barney are out walking and come across the tiniest of creeks. And there’s a sign that says: Grand Canyon.

Anyway, the Gorges de la Nesque is one of my favorite rides. In fact, on one of my Nesque rides, I couldn’t help notice that I was smiling. Maybe you will too.

My Nesque ride usually starts in Bedoin, although it can also begin in Sault or Venesque. So, here we go, from Bedoin … you can click here to see the route.

nesque7From Bedoin (the base city for the most difficult of the three ascents of Mount Ventoux) head east and south toward the little town on Flassan. Then on to Villes-sur-Auzion and onto the D942 and the start of the gorge. Make sure you don’t follow the D1 signs to Sault. The D1 is a much busier and less scenic route.

Hey, what’s that? Off in the distance, looming above everything, all white and ominous at the peak? It Mount Ventoux. Which dominates this region of Provence. It’s everywhere. Mocking me and just daring me to climb it.

From Villes-sur-Auzon you have to climb up and over a preliminary peak to get “inside” the gorge. And once you do, the fun – and amazing views and smiles – begin. It’s a long, gentle – and sometimes a little steep – climb to the top and you pass through three tunnels carved into the side of the stone cliffs. Below, hundreds of feet down, is the river.

During one Nesque ride, I noticed several guys walking around, in the woods and brush above me … carrying guns. “Oh shit, this must be hunting season for cyclists!” It wasn’t. Found out later it was hunting season for … wild boars. And there’s a bit of a controversy, as the hunters may or may not sneak up on mothers in the midst of child birth and started blasting away. And the meat, some say, gives you cancer.

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The Ventoux is everywhere

As I warily rode by the hunters, praying none of them had an itchy trigger finger, a group of about 10 French guys passed me. I joined the pack and was able to keep up with them and even chat a bit as we climbed.

They were from Annecy and had come to Provence to climb the Ventoux, which they had done the day before. Several spoke English and one of the guys told me that one of the guys up at the front of the pack was born and grew up in New York and that I must talk to him when we got to the top. Being guys, we picked up the pace as we approached the last few kilometers of the climb, and turned it into a race. I was able to stay with the lead pack for a kilometer or two, as one, two, and then three riders dropped off the back and quickly fell behind. With a kilometer to go, my legs and lungs were screaming and I was beginning to crack. I wasn’t the only one, and our pack of about six split apart. It was like being in the Tour de France! Two guys surged ahead and the rest of us fell back and finished as an exhausted-yet-smiling group.

We regrouped at the top, next to the viewing station – and I chatted with the guy from New York. We compared route notes, Mount Ventoux experiences, etc. The guys headed back they way we’d come, while I headed down to Sault.

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On another Nesque ride, at the top, was a sheep. One single, solitary sheep. And he (she?) looked lonely. He was hanging out at the viewing station, wondering where the heck all the other sheep had gone.

There wasn’t much I could do … other than take his photo. He didn’t seem to mind

The ride down the gorge to Sault is fast and spectacular, as the valley on the other side is spread out in front of you, with Sault off in the distance, atop a hill. You can see the patchwork of farms, a sea of greens and blues.

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The view across the valley toward Sault … not bad, right?

As you approach Monieux, which is down in the valley, you’ll see the remains of a castle high up on a hill.

Sadly, our ride is coming to an end. There’s a bit of a climb into Sault, which is also usually packed full of cyclists. The Sault route up to the top of the Ventoux is considered the easiest of the three routes and … it is. Kind of. The first 20 Ks are actually easy, then you reach the Chalet Reynard turnoff and join the Bedoin route for the final 6 Ks to the top. The toughest 6 Ks.

nesqueThere’s a nice cafe at the edge of Sault, with a view across the valley and up to the summit of the Ventoux. We’ve stayed in Sault a few times, as it’s actually a nicer town than Bedoin. And, we’ve sat at the cafe, drinking a beer and eating a pizza

Heading back to Bedoin?

There are a few options. You can go back the way you just came and see the Nesque from a entirely different perspective. Or, you can climb the Ventoux and then fly down the final 21K to Bedoin. Or, here’s a nice option: Head back to Monieux. Find the D96 in the middle of town and follow it to the D5 which will take you up and around the south side of the Nesque, but without the view down to the gorge.

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Heading back from Sault … to Bedoin

For more great rides in Provence, check out my eBook: Biking Provence.

This is the first of several posts on my favorite rides. So, stay tuned.

 

 

The Biking France Journey Begins…

 

September 21, 1985: My first bike ride in France. Figured this would be a good way to start this blog. Here’s the story…

I was an aviation writer back then, covering the Paris Air Show for the third time. I know: Tough assignment! When it was over, decided it was time to see some of the beautiful French countryside that Van Gough and Monet were so obsessed with.

blois2Settled on the Loire Valley, boarded the train to Blois and, on the way, read something in my Let’s Go Francetravel book that changed my life: “Unquestionably the best way to see this fecund valley is by bike. Distances are relatively short, and the terrain is flat and lush.”

Done. I’m renting a bike when I get to Blois. At the place Let’s Gorecommended. The only problem was, I had no idea what the word fecund meant. Is it a French word? English? Italian? It’s gotta be a good thing, right?

***

After polishing off three chocolate croissants, one of the greatest foods ever invented and the French version of an energy bar, off I went in search of Atelier Cycles. At the back of the shop, working on a bike, wearing a yellow, one-piece mechanic’s suit that made him look like a giant banana, was Monsieur Atelier.

At least I think he was Monsieur Atelier. Had to be Monsieur Atelier. Whoever he was, he didn’t speak any English.

Using sign language, smiles and my limited French vocabulary, was able to explain to him that I wanted to rent a bike … I mean velo … for a week. “Ah, oui,” Monsieur Atelier said, followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.bikeshop

He picked out a yellow road bike that matched his outfit and had “Atelier Cycles” written on both sides of the top tube. Yellow must be his favorite color.

The bike seemed perfect – and even had a rack on the back to strap on my knapsack. Damn, hadn’t thought about how to carry my stuff until that very moment.

Monsieur Atelier began pointing at various parts of the yellow bike, talking faster and faster. He was very passionate about velos. I kept nodding, faster and faster, even though I had no idea what he was talking about. He took a bunch of stuff out of the little pouch under the seat and started explaining and demonstrating what to do with the tools. He even pantomimed how to fix a flat tire, something else I hadn’t considered.

A flat tire?

Holy crap, that would totally suck, since I had no idea how to fix one.

Finally, Monsieur Atelier wheeled the bike 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 ridden a bike with straps on the pedals. Did they even have straps on the pedals of bikes in the United States back in 1985? I never saw them before. It looked so easy, something every 7-year-old French kid can do. But, no matter how hard I tried, and I tried really hard, I couldn’t manage to turn the one pedal and get my second foot into the damn strap. The more I tried, the more frustrated I got. My feet felt huge, like giant clown feet and the pedal straps seemed to get smaller and smaller the more I tried to get my second foot in.

pavement bikeOn the third or fourth try, I fell … and Monsieur Atelier did his best to hold back the laughter. My right hand was a little scratched up, but other than that I was fine, more angry and 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.

“Great,” I mumbled to myself. “He thinks I’m too stupid to be trusted with his nice, yellow bike. Now what the hell am I going to do? You can’t go on a bike ride without a bike. Can you? No, you can’t. That’s called hiking.”

Monsieur Atelier emerged a few minutes later from the shop with the bike – minus the pedal straps. “Voila,” he said, followed by a bunch of French words I didn’t understand.

I got on the bike, started pedaling, turned to wave goodbye, wobbled and nearly lost my balance, but quickly righted myself, and pedaled off into the Loire. Think I saw Monsieur Atelier cross himself a couple times. Wonder if it was for me – or his bike?

***
DSCN0530Five days and about 200 miles later, my thighs were screaming in agony, my butt was sore and rashy red … but I was totally hooked on traveling by bike. Loved the freedom, the adventure, the route planning, the exploring of each and every town I stayed in and the amazing, fecundness of France. Fecund, by the way, means full of flowers, plants and flora. I saw the castles at Chambord and Chenonceaux (it goes across a river!), the amazing gardens at Villandry. Saw endless fields of sunflowers, vineyards and 500-year old churches. Even climbed a few hills. Barely.

I’ve now biked in France 12 times, a total of 12,000-plus miles … and counting. This blog is my attempt to share the joys of biking in France … and sell a few of my Biking France eBooks (sorry, to be so blatant, but hey, this is what I do for a living. It’s not like the croissants and bike rentals are free).

Thanks for reading … enjoy the ride.