Thursday, September 19, 2013

French reflections

After forty years of cycling I can confidently assert there are only two ways of riding a bike: in the company of friends, or solo.

The former is more popular, and rightly so – for riding with companions provides encouragement, support, a touch of good-natured competition – it’s what the old cycling journals used to call ‘fellowship’. For the vast majority of riding, and unless you’re an anti-socialite,  it's the best option.

So with typical perversity, on my holiday this summer I chose the second option: in part from necessity (no one else would contemplate peddling in 30 degree heat), but also because I wanted to ride alone.

A few days after arriving in the Alps I climbed the Col de Joux-Verte, riding from St Jean d’Aulps.  The road reaches 1760 meters - every one of them in shrivelling heat; every one an effort of will.  On the steeper sections, I was down to 4 miles an hour – and for the first time I can remember, I didn’t overtake a single rider. I lost count of those who left me in their wake.

It didn’t matter.

Some say the pleasure in riding solo is that it takes the pressure off – there’s no need to set a pace or keep up with the group.  Others like the flexibility – with no fixed schedule, you can stop and deviate at your whim.

There's truth in both these perspectives – but to me the attraction of riding alone is more cerebral than physical.  For in a lifetime of outdoor activities, I have found no better way to access to the introspective pleasure of self-reflection, primed by a landscape that requires physical effort.   

To cycle the high cols requires that you are either super-fit (and there’s plenty of testosterone on two wheels to remind you of what’s possible) - or stoic to a level which embraces the difficulty, less as physical challenge, and more as philosophic opportunity.

I tend to the latter approach!

Which is just as well, because the truth is, riding the cols hurts – a lot.  

And yet the odd thing is, I remember those few hours on the bike more than any other on our holiday:  the pull on my calves as the road steepened; the smell of the pines and the cool of their shade; the lake at Montriond and the speedometer hitting 40 mph.  It’s not pain that I remember – it’s delight.  And when it was all over, I remember yearning for more.

Tomorrow I'm off on another challenge - travelling to Paris then peddling back home. It’s the third year I’ve ridden for charity, and this time I’ve again raised money for the National Autism Society.  I’ll not be alone though – I’m riding with twenty colleagues who’ve also supported good causes. In three years we’ve raised over £100,000, so the pain seems worth it.  

I have no doubt it will hurt again – frankly, I’m out of shape and practice. But I know I'll get through. And if I drop off the back and find myself alone… well, that’s almost a bonus. I've promised to write the blog of the trip - and who knows, if I spend enough time thinking, I might even write a little more on here, when I get back.

Wish me luck.


  1. I do wish you luck.

    You've brought back for the days of walking in the hills and mountains of Scotland with my father - who made few allowances for the faint hearted.

    I still remember him calling

    Marche ou creve...

    But we would both be still to hear a bird call, or to take in a view.

  2. More often than not I have cycled solo. Not only to get away from others but sometimes to get away from myself... cycling solo frees the mind in many ways.

  3. Good luck! And good health, energy, motivation, comradeship...

  4. Bon Voyage Mark - looking forward to hearing your Traveller's Tales :)

  5. Hi Mark, and I came here from Sarah's blog, where you're up there in her fave reads and because I too like cycling - accompanied or alone - for reasons of leisurely pleasure here in France. One of my favourite places to go is Annecy, because of its super bike tracks which go right around the lake, which I'm sure you must know. It's a favourite destination for cyclists and many hotels accept bikes, although it can be hard to find a room in summer.

    Anyway, best of luck with the trip and I hope you raise all the money you're hoping to.

  6. Good luck, at least there aren't any Alpine peaks in northern France (mores the pity I hear you say?). :)

  7. Bon voyage, Mark. What a worthwhile ride.

  8. Hi, How'd it go? My Charlie has recently cycled from Land's End to JOG by himself, out of choice. He had a wonderful time, I think there's a whole different dynamic when you're doing a trip like that by yourself, he had some great interactions and support from strangers. As a group or even a couple, you're more self-sufficient. On your own, people respond differently to you. Plus the fact, he was 'mothered' and fussed over by all his landladies!! Sx