Very belatedly, and especially for my mate Tom Cahill, here are some pictures – and a few thoughts – from our 2010 summer holiday in south-west France. Almost four months ago now, and as I sit in my office at Lancaster University, having just pedalled the four miles from home in sub-zero temperatures, all that warmth and sunshine is a very fuzzy memory.
We had a superb holiday. Three weeks of cycle-camping, starting and finishing in Bordeaux, and taking in the Dordogne, Entre-deux-Mers, the Arcachon basin and the Atlantic coast. It was our first cycle-touring holiday with Bobby on his own machine. Now nine years old, he is too big and heavy for the trailer bike, and anyway, he has too much strength, independence, competence and confidence to be so restricted any longer. It was time to set him free! And how he thrived.
He did have a baptism of fire, though, riding from Bordeaux’s airport (yes, we flew …) into the city centre along very busy rush-hour roads full of fast-moving cars. Such times represented the stressful moments of the holiday; but they were few and far between, Bobby coped brilliantly, and when it comes to interacting with and respecting people on bikes, the French drivers are in a completely different league to those in the UK; almost invariably drivers were patient and gave us plenty of room. The only exception, ironically given that of all the areas we visited it is the one which advertises itself as ‘cycle-friendly’, were the roads around the Arcachon basin which were pretty horrible and on which we experienced some fairly dreadful driving.
But as I say, those were ‘moments’. The durations which they only occasionally punctuated involved a variety of really top quality cycling infrastructure. We made good use of off-road cycling facilities, starting out by heading east from Bordeaux along the Roger Lapebie cycle route, which follows a disused railway through gorgeous scenery.
Later in the holiday we headed to the beach, and rode west, across the Gironde’s flat pine-forested floor, along some very quiet cycle routes. Indeed, so quiet that stopping for an occasional game of pine-cone boules on the track was no problem …
Probably the favourite stretch of the holiday for all of us, however, was the quiet country roads along and around the Dordogne. Sue and I were initially apprehensive because we didn’t know how Bobby would cope – particularly in terms of concentration – with riding for long spells on the road, and because we weren’t sure how French drivers would treat us. On both counts we needn’t have worried. Of course kids can concentrate when they need to, and Bobby coped just fine; in fact, having to concentrate – particularly on the climbs and descents – seemed massively to increase his level of enjoyment. And on the back roads there were very few cars, and the quality of driving was excellent – drivers exercising lots of patience, and then slowing right down and giving us lots of space as they went past. As I said, a world away from the kind of treatment we’re used to in the UK.
I’m aware that recent posts have centred much more on Bobby than on Flo. What’s interesting is that Bobby doesn’t have massively more enthusiasm for cycling than Flo. They both belong to a cycling family in which cycling is normal, expected, unquestioned. The reason Bobby’s getting more of my attention is that he’s at a stage where new ways of cycling, and so new cycling possibilities, are opening up. Two years ahead of Flo, he’s finding his cycling independence. Much of the time Flo’s still ‘stuck’ on the trailer bike; she’s still seeing an awful lot of my backside. For Bobby the cycling view has expanded and diversified. It’s marvellous to see him taking in the world. Here he is riding through the French vineyards.
Given the French love for cycling, their cities are an absolute disaster. There are signs that they are now, finally, beginning to try, so hopefully things will change. Bordeaux has a public bike scheme and bits and pieces of relatively pro-cycling infrastructure. But really, this is France! Were it not for a deep but I think vestigial respect for people who ride bikes the situation would be close to catastrophic. Bordeaux is flat, warm and remarkably beautiful. It should be a cycling city, a city full of cyclists. If Copenhagen can do it, Bordeaux certainly can. But it hasn’t; it’s firmly in the grip of the car. Anywhere else in the world, it’d be an urban planning disaster; in France, it’s a tragedy.
It had been more than twenty years since I last cycled in France, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My verdict? I loved the people; polite, respectful, reserved and above all ‘civilised’ or ‘cultured’ in a way which I hadn’t quite expected. And our cycling experience was in the main exquisite. Using the best cycling infrastructure we were permanently tripping over a rural France which charmed and enchanted. As Bobby and Flo get bigger and stronger, able to tackle longer distances and more demanding terrain, then more cycle-touring options will open up to us – my plan, then, will be to identify a region with a really good, dense network of roads (not hard, in France) and to steer a course through the back ones, the ones which drivers of motorised vehicles are unlikely to use, to be furtive in France.
It’s too long ago, and I’ve been dreaming and scheming about our next one ever since (actually, if I’m honest, I start daydreaming about the next one, and begin discussing it with Sue, whilst we’re still enjoying the present one – conditions are somehow conducive to doing so). I can’t imagine a year without a few weeks of bike-centred nomadism. Being almost permanently outdoors, almost permanently with my family, almost permanently experiencing and having to negotiate places you’ve never seen before – it’s refreshing and rejuvenating, but it’s also indulgent and therapeutic, and then it’s stretching and bonding too. What other kind of holiday can give so much?
Finally, it’s a bit cheesy, but also true – that a few weeks cycle-camping, mucking in together, living together intensely, but with a different kind of intimacy, powerfully re-makes us as a family. And every year, each time, it’s different – finding a balance, but a new balance, because the balance is always shifting … (next year Flo will be heavier, and maybe I’ll have lost some weight!)