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.
Settled 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.
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.
On 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?
Five 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.