After months of meticulous planning, the not so grand departure to the airport was exciting, with a tinge of stress. As a group of 5, mostly graduated but pathologically lazy school friends a 2 week trip from Bordeaux to Marseilles by bike was an unexpected holiday choice. Two members of the group had only taken up cycling recently in order to be a part of the trip leading to questions about performance. The rest of us had never done any touring and were determined that the the entire expedition be completed on fixed gear bikes, although this decision most mostly due to the facet that we couldn’t afford tourers.
Safe to say that we had hyped up the trip far more than popping over to the continent really deserved. We had been referring to is as a “Cycling Odyssey” since day one. On actually arriving in Bordeaux, about 14km in, there was already a sense of achievement. We had successfully deconstructed, flown with, reconstructed and ridden on our mutant track/touring bikes without incident. Navigating in an urban environment was not as challenging as we had feared. Our first day’s route took us out of the city along a train line that had been converted into a completely isolated bike path. Rolling through vineyards and fields of glowing sunflowers was extremely liberating, even at a modest pace. The additional mass of panniers crammed with camping kit alerted us to even the slightest incline. Once the (very gradual) inclines had been summited the descents allowed us to release the weight we carried. While grinding up the hill felt oppressively slow, there was a surge of energy going back down. Riding fixed means the pedals spin continuously, with the added weight, it feels like the bike is the one in control of the slowly building speed. Reaching our first night’s accommodation felt a world away from the battery farm of Stansted airport. With a fun, but not too knackering days ride we felt content to relax in the rural village we stopped in.
The first day set the tone for the following weeks of the trip. The route had carefully avoided anything that required a change in elevation. Following the Canal du Midi satisfied this constraint with the added benefit of requiring very little navigation. Covering 60-70km a day a was tough for some of the group, but always felt like an accomplishment by the next campsite. The routine fell into place quickly; break camp, head into town for to get breakfast (always croissant) and lunch (always baguettes), average around 20km/h for a couple of hours, stop for lunch around the halfway point, get back on the bikes and make it to the next campsite by late afternoon, set up tents and freshen up, head into town for dinner (pizza and a beer). The pace was mostly gentle, navigation kept it low in towns and often the bike paths were often narrow enough to restrict speed. Combined with the overcast weather, this meant we always had enough energy to sort out camping and still check out where we were staying. We had a couple of rest days, giving us the opportunity to spend more time in some places. On both occasions we ended up drinking heavily at the end of a rest day, not before it, consequently the days afterwards were not enjoyed as much. But even at it’s worst, the mood was never low. There was always plenty of breath for chatting and taking in the scenery.
I knew I wasn’t inline for an intense two weeks of pushing my limits. Normally my aim is to go as hard as possible on the bike, the harder I go, the greater the mental and physiological effects. Touring was almost as profound, but in a much more subtle manner. I didn’t have to go hard to be able to be completely absorbed in what I was doing, the routine and the steady pace were conducive to a very clear head. Cruising along, soaking up the surroundings in the company of life long friends wasn’t adventurous in the sense that it was scary or we were going into the unknown. It kept us fresh, new towns, new terrain, a new wheel at your side every so often. Even on the rare occasion when real life issues such as employment were mentioned, it was considered in a very abstract manner and we quickly returned to a state of zen.
I had hoped to be able to return to the UK having reached new heights of cycling performance. While the numbers where certainly my best yet, however I felt the trip was merely a stepping stone in terms of cycling challenges. What I didn’t count on spending the trip so completely devoid of worries about the real world. Inquisitively exploring new roads, buoyed along by the combined will power of the peloton didn’t feel like an extreme sport. It felt much more like a pilgrimage.