(Summer Blog Sprint: post 1 of 7)
It’s a calm, sunny afternoon in the Charente and I’m sick of sitting in front of a screen.
“Shall we go for a bike ride?” I ask my partner. A few years ago, I’d have targeted my kids with the suggestion, but these days they’re too busy. One’s rocking on her guitar / groove box and the other is sleeping after a nuit blanche (night without sleep) of partying.
My partner is busy watching wild bees in the garden, which is a fascinating hobby he has recently developed. He can’t see the point in cycling: he’s a former basketball player, and sport is about strategy and teamwork, not about ambling around country lanes. He declines, as usual.
It doesn’t matter. I straddle my bike and I’m off, unsure of where I’m going but ready to take any lane or track that looks inviting. Cycling is my favourite sport, and I can’t help singing when I’m in the saddle. You can see so much more when you cycle than when you walk, and the Charente lanes and tracks are ideal for my style of cycling.
As I cycle, I think about my summer holiday idea. I’ve been toying with it since the moment the kids became responsible teenagers – meaning they can work the washing machine, cook and drive. But the kids aren’t the problem. To bring my idea to fruition, I’ve got to make cycling seem as fascinating as bee-watching.
I pedal, plot and plan.
A few years ago Many years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I cycled across France. My friend Will and I started from my home in Dorset, we ‘cycled’ all the way across The Channel on a ferry to Cherbourg, and then pedalled down to Béziers for a grape harvest.
It was the best of holidays: not because it was exotic, but because we were free.
Will and I had just come back from Chile, where we’d taken part in a Raleigh expedition and then hitch-hiked 5000km from the glaciers in the south of the country to the Atacama desert in the north. Hitching was fun, but sometimes we’d have to wait hours (five hours was the record) for a car or lorry to pass. We were dependent on other people.
Travelling on a bike, with minimal gear, was much more liberating. We could go where we wanted and explore whatever took our fancy. Many things did take our fancy – but that’s another story.
Ever since that trip, I’ve hankered after an itinerant cycling holiday.
When our kids were 5 and 8 years old, I managed to inspire them with a camping expedition along the River Charente. Later, when the younger one was old enough to ride a normal-sized bike, we went on a similar trip: from Cognac to the Guinness-serving Les Gabariers pub in Saint-Simeux. The best part of that ride was the Guinness being able to stop every ten kilometres to jump off trees into the river (my daughter) and bathe in its cooling waters (me).
I think about all this as I cycle around my favourite 20km circuit. I wonder how to persuade my partner that this summer is the perfect time to leave the bees to their business and cycle into the sunset together.
And that’s when I see the couple with their bike trailer.
One of the reasons my partner isn’t interested in a cycle trip is that, when camping, he likes the comfort of his inflatable mattress. He’s in love with his canvas tipi tent, and (with reason, I suppose) can’t understand my adoration for my tiny tent and skinny mats; I’m not sure he realises the potential freedom they represent.
If we bought / borrowed / stole a trailer, we could take his tipi. I eye the trailer as it passes, and consider following to see how it copes with the bumps and hills. I’d probably be taken for a stalker. I watch the couple cycle into the sunset and then I pedal home and tell my partner my idea.
He kisses his bees goodnight.
He comes indoors and surfs on the internet. Within hours, he’s a theoretical expert on bike trailers.
I rave about cycling in Iceland, Africa, New Zealand. Is he listening?
A few weeks later, on a sunny afternoon when I’m sick of staring at my screen, he agrees to come on a short bike ride with me. The kids have been using his bike for years, and it takes an hour to mend a wheel, fix the saddle, pump up the tyres and oil the chain.
I modify my favourite route to take in a short stop at a friend’s house: our friend invites us in for a beer, and then, a little further on, we stop at another friend’s house, who also invites us in for a beer. I think my partner is enjoying this cycling lark. And, as it happens, one friend has an old child-trailer he can give us.
Before attacking Iceland, Africa & New Zealand, we decide to explore locally. We’re going to discover the birthplace of our very own River Charente, the river that flows through our village. Our aim is to see newly born water surge out of the ground in virgin purity, ready for its journey along the Charente riverbed to the Atlantic Ocean.
Isn’t that a great objective for a cycling trip?
(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)