Smiling, the cashier kindly points to our nectarines and begins rapidly explaining something in French. “Pardon?” is about all Ian can muster in reply. More patient French explanation. “Je voudrais,” Ian exclaims, trying to point at the fruit. The woman smiles and nods. “Ici, je voudrais,” Ian repeats, concerned he’s not coming across. If it were socially acceptable, the woman probably would have comfortingly patted Ian on the hand. After about five minutes of fruit, here, I want, we realize we need to weigh the fruit ourselves. There are half a dozen harried French people behind us, so red faced and hungry, we wander off to the produce aisle to weigh our fruit.
Ian’s sixth-grade French and Christine’s abject fear of miscommunication have guided us through the week, and it has changed the way we travel considerably. Instead of knowing where we’ll sleep, how we’ll drink or eat, or what roads to ride, much of our trip is now left to chance. Ignorant of local customs or the ability to engage in coherent conversation, France has an edge of unpredictability. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, excellent roads (and signs), and a plethora of boulangeries, this unpredictability has largely been a joy rather than a struggle.
Day 30: July 7, Saint-Omer to Beaumetz-les-Loges, 50.6 miles
We were taken back by how immediately different France seems compared to England. We passed through tiny towns, sans tea-shop or village green, made up of funky stone houses, shutters closed in the heat of the day, tiled red roofs… not English at all.
Nothing was ever open, or so it seemed. But catch it at the right time, and these little villages open up into bustling markets. We were lucky enough to happen upon a market our first day, and learned French lesson #1: always, always buy food when you can.
That night we stayed with a very friendly and patient French family. They spoke almost no English, but between the lot of us we could communicate through German, Spanish, French, and English. It was a verbal jigsaw puzzle. We enjoyed some delicious French cuisine, sampled some mysterious French cheese (“that puts hair on your chest”), and fell into bed almost as exhausted by our linguistic adventures as our cycling ones.
Day 31: July 8, Beaumetz-les-Loges to Albert, 22.1 miles
Le Tour, le Tour, le Tour de France! By fortuitous timing, we got to watch the Tour for one day as it flew out of Belgium southwest into Britanny and Normandy. This was our day off, and we looked forward to a short ride to Authuille, a tiny town 50k from the finish. By CHANCE, however, our rear tire sidewall blew out in the middle of a field on our way. With no extra tire (we usually carry one but had recently used the spare and hadn’t replaced it), we suddenly felt quite vulnerable. Le Tour was under threat. Luckily, using electrical tape, a granola bar wrapper, and heavily medicated with chocolate, Team Golden Tandem managed to get the tire up to 60psi, and we limped our way to the race.
WHICH WAS AWESOME. We arrived four hours early, stocked with pate, cheese, and bread, and spent a happy afternoon wrapped in rain gear, watching the town slowly get ready and the crowds trickle in. We found ourselves next to a British couple obsessed with the Tour, and got a running commentary on Tour politics and news throughout the day. A pre-race caravan roared by, from which soggy and miserable employees flung free candy and sausage at the spectators. Then from around the corner flew the riders. Mouths fixed in a grimace, squinting against the rain, we watched the world’s best riders fly by in about thirty seconds. What a thrill!
Suddenly, it was over. The spectators evaporated in a moment, and we rolled a few miles on to camp. Again, through no achievement of planning, we happened to find a bike shop nearby with e-bike tires, specially designed for high loads and torque. AND the shop owner gave us free drinks.
Day 32: July 9, Albert to Pierrefonds, 72.7 miles
French lesson #2: boulangeries/pattiseries are always open in the morning, and you should always go. We got two pastries, strapped a massive baguette to our bags, and took off in a tailwind. By lunch we had found another market, where we followed lesson #1 and stocked up on fruit and veggies (plenty of language comedy therein). We ate by a lovely canal in a tiny hamlet under cloudy skies and a cool breeze.
We arrived in Compiegne, an important destination for Christine’s bicycle research, in time for a tour in French of the transportation museum. This was housed in a Napoleonic palace, which combined with the language barrier made for a bemusing but fruitful couple of hours.
We headed south through estate woodlands, imagining Napoleon on massive imperial hunts in the fall. We emerged from the trees into the stunning town of Pierrefonds, overshadowed by a massive 19th century medieval-revival chateau.
Day 33: July 10, Pierrefonds to Montmirail, 59.4 miles (and lots of climbing)
The free-flowing French culture must be getting to us, because we decided to throw our itinerary out the window, and spend half a day in town. Who wouldn’t? We enjoyed crepes, another fine French market in the square, and bought out a boulangerie. We took our pastries, and quiche, and baguettes, and sandwiches to the chateau, where we feasted in the shade of the walls.
After such an enjoyable morning, we struggled through a baking afternoon. Long, slow “humps” through wheat fields took forever to climb and offered no shade. More French lessons, specific to summer: #3) Don’t fall behind in hydration; #4) Don’t fall behind in water-supply; #5) Shade is the best.
Day 34: July 11, Montmirail to Gerauldot, 95.14 miles (dang)
A rough day, but epic. We started our day with tea, which in the long run was a ridiculous move, as it was a billion degrees, and the time spent brewing meant it was hotter when we left. To further compound matters, we had a loose rear hub, which the local mechanic didn’t have the tools to fix.
Wobbly, we headed off for the next mechanic, 80 miles away. We kept ourselves upright with a shaded lunch stop, but the French summer heat is relentless. Ten miles outside of Troyes, city of bike mechanics, we ran out of water. Town after town passed, shuttered against the sun, with no water to be found.
We eventually begged for water from two women on a doorstep, the only humans we could find outside. Not only did they give us two liters of ice-cold water, one of them then, with a look of genuine concern on her face, insisted upon escorting us by bike to a nearby canal path. This was shady, flat, and fast.* It led us straight into Troyes, an ancient Roman city.
We arrived with zero interest in history, anxious and dehydrated ten minutes before the bike shop closed. The owner deftly tightened our hub within five minutes, and wished us “bon courage,” which we think means wash your clothes, you smell terrible. We get it a lot.*
Ten miles later on a beautiful lake we finally rolled into our campsite. And were turned away. We had gotten used to fortune going our way, and this disappointment, at the end of a long, hot, tiring day, was crushing. The owner of the camp must have seen this, because he was desperately apologetic, and also suggested we wash our clothes (“bon courage, mes amis!”).
Three miles later, and possibly crying a little bit, we made it to camp. We had had the foresight to buy champagne, tortellini, and chocolate pudding, however, and managed to make a pretty excellent night of it. We are in champagne country, so it seemed obligatory. Bon chance, indeed.
*We would like to award these kind strangers with the Golden Tandem award for turning our day around.
Day 35: July 12, Gerauldot to Villegusien, 74.8 miles
Lessons learned. We changed our rhythm, and awoke at dawn for an early start. We drank a lot of water before leaving, AND filled our 6-liter wooby (water bladder). Instead of suffering through the heat of the day during which everything is closed, we spent the hottest hours in the shade by a football field eating a slow lunch and refilling water.
We arrived in camp with water to spare and in much better spirits. It turns out we had our hilliest day yet this trip–5,700 feet of climbing! All this and we still felt human by the end.
A real treat awaited us. Our campsite had a POOL and LAUNDRY, and we went to bed smelling like soap and chlorine.
Day 36: July 13, Villegusien to Quingey, 67.7 miles
We have made it to the Jura! After traversing France by the seat of our pants (seriously, our butts really hurt), we will follow a pre-planned route through this hilly province.
We bid fairwell to endless hayfields, humps, and golden wheat as suddenly the Jura reared up before us: mountains! Trees!
Our excellent strategy of early departure, long breaks, and lots of water paid off. We arrived into camp in the afternoon, a shaded stretch of river-bank in the small town of Quingey. On the eve of Bastille Day, we strolled through town to watch children lining up for a latern parade, punctuated by the explosions of fire-crackers set off down small alleyways.
Too tired to move, we fell asleep to the thunderous roar of a professional fireworks display. It was interesting to not see the explosions, yet to hear the sound echo down the valley.
Day 37: July 14, Quigney, NO BIKING.
Again we throw our hands up, and let chance decide–today is Bastille Day, this town is gorgeous, and we are tired. We shall spend the day with our feet up, in the shade, eating pastries and bread. Perhaps we’ll write some postcards. When next you hear from us, we’ll likely be somewhere in the Swiss Alps, but who knows? We are two lonely travellers with the vocabulary of toddlers in a strange country full of chocolate croissants. Anything could happen, and we’re OK with that.